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Forest Lore of the Maori


page 92


Mamaku, Korau (Cyathea medullaris). This stately tree-fern provided an occasional food-supply; not one that could be constantly utilized, like the aruhe, for reproduction is slow; it was often useful to travellers, and to others in times of scarcity. An error was made by early writers in stating that the root of this tree-fern is the edible part, and this error was perpetuated for some time. G. Forster, in his account of Cook's second voyage, speaks of seeing mamaku at Queen Charlotte Sound in 1773; it was pointed out by some natives. The voyagers had seen some of the Maori eating the cooked product: "The natives at our watering-place were seen to eat a root boiled or baked by means of hot stones; and Mr. Whitehouse, the first mate, brought some of it on board, which tasted rather better than a turnip." Later, J. R. Forster "obtained some large pieces of this root," after which two natives shewed them the tree: "These men pointed out a species of fern-tree, which they called mamaghoo, as having the eatable root; and at the same time shewed the difference between this and another kind of fern-tree, which they named ponga. The first is full of a tender pulp or pith, which when cut exudes a reddish juice of a gelatinous nature, nearly related to sago. This is so much the less singular, as the real sago tree is a species of fern. The good nutritive root of the mamaghoo must not, however, be confounded with that wretched article of New Zealand diet, the common fern-root, or acrostichum surcatum Linn… . . The mamaghoo… . . is tolerably good eating, and the only fault seems to be that it is not plentiful enough for a constant supply." Here we see that Forster must have actually examined the edible part of the trunk, and yet speaks of the "good nutritive root." These roots are extremely hard and the least edible of substances. In Anderson's account of Queen Charlotte Sound (1777) we find that knowledge of the tree had advanced somewhat, for we learn of native cooking that "they dress the root, and part of the stalk, of the large fern-tree in a great hole dug for that purpose, which serves as an oven. After which they split it, and find, within, a fine gelatinous substance, like boiled sago powder, but firmer." Many years rolled backward into the past, and then, in 1817 J. L. Nicholas assured his readers that the part of the 'fern-tree' eaten is the root. He also refers to the 'pulp' of the stem, and evidently his account was taken from that of Forster. In Wade's little work (1842) the edible root changes to "the thick part of the large fronds,' which 'is boiled and eaten as a vegetable.' Taylor, in his Maori and English Dictionary, does teil us that it is the pith of the stem that is eaten, and adds: "When dried in the sun it affords a poor substitute for sago; page 93the undeveloped fronds are sometimes boiled." It is doubtful if boiling would be satisfactory, they were probably steamed.

In 1843 Europe was still distracted over the mamaku question; was the root, trunk, or leaf to be edible? Meyen, in his Geography of Plants, pushes Forster's evidence aside and teils us that the part eaten is "the juicy, amylaceous pith, which corresponds with the pith of the cygas or sago palm, and produces a stuff like sago, which, being roasted, is eaten like bread." Meyen made a slip over his roasting, but most of the early writers described the Maori steaming of food as baking. The New Zealand Journal of August 5, 1843, asks colonists to publish the truth as to the great mamaku question!

Colenso teils us in his famed essay that "The sago-like pith of the stem of the large black tree-fern …. was also baked in their earth ovens and used; it is very good and nourishing eating." Colenso hits the mark as to what was cooked, but one still queries 'baked', inasmuch as friend Webster teils us concerning the term 'bake' that it means 'to prepare, as food, by cooking in a dry heat,' and steam, in a drenched and covered umu, is by no means dry.

Taylor, in his Te Ika a Maui, states that "the stem [of the mamaku] is often twenty feet long, and is all eaten; when the outside is pared off there is a medullary substance, sometimes eight inches in diameter, with scarcely any fibre in it; this is slightly sweet and really agreeable; when cooked, it is called pitau. It is not improbable that if it were dried it might be used as sago; it is highly prized in winter." When questioned, natives have always explained to me that it was the 'medullary substance' of the upper part of the trunk only that was eaten, not that of the lower part. As to the length of twenty feet, the trunks are often much longer than that, as when growing in sheltered places. The term pitau is employed to denote the young circinate fronds, and hence any scroll-like form, but it is doubtful if it is a specific term for the edible pith-like matter; it would be correctly applied to the curled, immature fronds if cooked for food. The cooked pith of the trunk is, and was, spoken of as mamaku, but this word denotes the whole tree, and is not a Special term for the pith.

Bidwill, in his Rambles in New Zealand (1841), also dwells upon the mamaku, which he miscalls mummuke, but this was the Bidwill under whose care Maketu became Muckatoo, Te Rapa was converted into Koteropo, and kokowai posed as cocoi. However he did tell us that the young fronds of this tree-fern were eaten, "as well as the soft part of the head of the trunk." He rightly describes the edible matter as being very slimy, so that, if you bite it, you will page 94have some difficulty in spitting it out. He eulogises the appearance of this fine species, and states that the edible matter, by long 'baking' in the native ovens, becomes somewhat of the consistency of baked apple, which it would resemble in taste if it were at all acid. Colenso, in another of his lucubrations, says that the frond-stems and trunk were eaten, again 'baked/ also that: "This excellent boiled sago-like substance was certainly one of their very best wild vegetable productions …. but it could only be used occasionally from its comparative rarity." It also takes years to develop a sizeable trunk, and, when felled, does not throw up another stem. Heaphy, during his explorations in Westland in 1846, resorted to mamaku cooked in a Maori steam-oven when out of rations. Potts, in his Out in the Open, in describing a native feast, teils of "a vessel filled with a thick syrup concocted from the mucilaginous heart of the mamaku." This syrup, he remarks, was deliciously cool and of a pleasnat bitter-sweet flavour. I have never heard a native describe any preparation of mamaku as being of a syrup-like consistency. At the same meeting Potts saw mamaku prepared in the way known to me, and of this he writes: "This esculent appeared in junks of about a foot in length …. It was presented ready dressed, was soft, with a very sweet flavour." The above writer gives a ngeri or chant concerning this food, which was probably sung when the food was being carried to the guests.

  • "He mamaku, he mamaku, he kai ma Taroa
  • E kore koe e karangatia i te tau o te hope motuhia."

One contributor explained that, when the young fronds were to be cooked, that is the stem portions of such, they were first rubbed, and perhaps washed, in order to get rid of the objectionable hair-like growth; this, however, rubs off easily. The curled, scroll-like upper part of such young fronds seems to have been rejected. The pieces to be cooked were stacked in criss-cross fashion in the steaming-pit. The upper part of the trunk of the tree-fern, the part procured as a food-supply, is termed the koata; it is also the koata of the nikau that is eaten. The Matatua folk maintain that the lower part of the stem was not eaten. When the section desired was obtained then the hard outer part was hewn off with a stone adze. The soft pith-like inner part was then divided into sections and cooked in a steam-oven for 48 hours; it was eaten cold. Two informants stated that the bases or butt-ends of large matured leaves were also cooked for the sake of the edible inner part. The edible part to be cooked is said by one informant to have been sliced into thin pieces; these were subjected to a long-continued steaming process that destroyed page 95the unpleasant sliminess of the pith, after which the slices were threaded in long strings and hung up to dry as a food-supply for future use.

When natives proposed to feil certain mamaku trees or groves to provide a supply of food, and could afford to wait therefor, it was the custom to wound the stems of such trees with stone adzes. This caused the stem to bleed redly, and the loss of this glutinous semi-liquid substance is said to deprive the edible pith of a certain bitter principle. As in the case of the cooking of the ti certain restrictions were imposed upon those who prepared and tended ovens of mamaku. They were compelled to observe certain rules of decorum, especially were the sexes required to be circumspect in their behaviour, other-wise their labours would be in vain, and the preparation of the food-supply a failure. Any such failure in an activity also entailed upon the participants therein other disabilities, certain disqualifications that do not enter into the purview of civilized man. One informant told me that, while engaged in preparing and tending these ovens persons were not allowed to work flax (Phormium), but he was unable to clearly explain the reason for this interdiction.

An East Coast native mentioned the ponga (Cyathea dealbata) as providing a food supply, but this I wot not of. His remark: Ko nga kai ma te mahi he ti, he ponga, ko aua kai he roa e tao ana, taki po rua e tao ana, katahi ka maoa is clear enough. (The food supplies for the workers were ti and ponga; those foods are cooked for a long time, each is cooked for two days ere it is done.' I can only think that the contributor meant the mamaku, not the ponga. He also gave the following working song (tewha) in which the ponga again appears as an esculent:—

"Ka tau mai ra, ka tau mai ra
Ko manini tua, ko manini aro
Tauranga te kura, tauranga te aweawe
Ko Matariki ka kau i te ata
I taku manawa ka poreporea
Ki manawa te tina, he umu ti te tumatatia
He ponga te kai te tao ngata ma te mahi
E Puhi E! Kei tai, kei te whakarua koia i hao."

It is just possible that ponga may be used in a generic manner in these cases.

We have seen that the mamaku tree-fern is also known as korau, but in a list of names of food-producing plants of the Bay of Plenty district given at pp. 179, 199, 217 of vol. 37 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society, both korau and mamaku appear. The Maori tells us that korau is also the name of a species of turnip that his ancestors page 96have grown here for centuries. Such is the belief of natives of the East Coast, though I heard no word of this pre-European turnip in the Bay of Plenty. It is certain that no such plant was known here when Cook arrived on these shores, and natives have confused the two kor au. See Bulletin No. 9, Ist ed., of this series, pp. 145-146, for further notes on this korau question. It may be added that some natives maintain that their forefathers possessed the Irish potato (Solanum) prior to the arrival of Captain Cook. This need not surprise us, for it is now 160 years since Cook arrived. Cook and Crozet introduced a number of food plants, including the turnip and potato.

The edible part of the mamaku is a soft substance, and does not contain the numerous katote or hard, black strips that are found in the ponga, and so it is easy to work. The gum-like matter that exudes from the wounded trunk of a tree-fern is called heka-ponga. Pairi is a term to denote the slabs of matted aerial roots cut from the thick stems of Dicksonia fibrosa, and used for various purposes, as described in Bulletin No. 5 of this series.