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Forest Lore of the Maori



(Corynocarpus laevigata). Here we have another tree that has been of great service to the Maori people during past centuries, more especially in certain districts where cultivated food-products formed no great part of the food-supply, as, for example, the rugged coastline from Wellington northward to Castle Point. As in the case of the tawa, the kernels of the berries were the useful part of the fruit; the mealy matter covering the kernel is certainly more palatable than page 45that of the tawa, but it was not viewed as being of much importance. Horehore is a term applied to the covering of the kernel, which flesh is soft and mealy when the berry is ripe; the ripened berry is of an orange colour. When a native speaks of karaka horehore he means the berries of the karaka having this meal still adhering to the kernel. The prepared kernels used as a food-supply are called kopia, while kopi is another name for the tree.

The Maori folk are somewhat persistent in stating that the karaka was introduced into New Zealand by their ancestors. The local species is found in New Zealand, at the Chatham Islands, and also at the Kermadec Islands, while allied species have been found in New Caledonia and the Torres Group, near the New Hebrides. In Cheeseman's Manual of the New Zealand Flora occurs the following remark: "The discovery of Corynocarpus in Melanesia is of considerable interest in connection with the often-quoted tradition that the New Zealand species was introduced by the Maoris when they first colonized the country." Now the descendants of the Aotea immigrants maintain that the karaka, the kiore or rat, and the pakura (pukeko) bird were all introduced on that vessel, say five centuries ago. Aotea tarried at some isle between Rarotonga and New Zealand, and it is probable that Sunday Island of the Kermadecs was that island; some Polynesian implements have been found thereat. Both the pakura bird and karaka tree are found at that island, and the latter may have been brought hither by voyagers; it can scarcely be called a forest tree in New Zealand, it is found on the coast-line and often at places inland whereat natives live or have lived; in virgin forests it is not found. Williams tells us, in no uncertain tones, that it is highly improbable that it was introduced, but the expert is less emphatic. Some interesting remarks on this subject occur at p. 51 of Vol. 24 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society, also at pp. 197-199 of Vol. 35 of the same Journal Ruawharo of Takitimu is said to have taken the karaka to Te Mahia, and Kupe the deep-sea voyager is also credited with having shared in its distribution; he is said to have planted the karaka known as the Whatu kura a Tane at Papawhero, Patea.

Karaka is a tree-name at Mangaia island, as kalaka is at Niue, but neither seems to be allied to our New Zealand tree.

In the Flora above mentioned we read as follows of the berries of the karaka: "The pulpy part of the fruit is edible; but the seed is highly poisonous unless steamed, or steeped in salt water." In Vol. 34 of the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, p. 495, appears a short paper on the karaka nut and its poisonous qualities, wherein we read that "The kernel of the karaka berry is known to be very page 46poisonous in its raw state, but if suitably prepared by cooking and subsequent soaking the kernel forms a staple article of Maori food." Another such paper on the nut was published in Vol. 4 of the above Transactions. So far as I could gather from old natives cases of poisoning through eating karaka were not common in former times. Presumably they would be very unpleasant eating, owing to their bitter taste. W. B[aucke] tells us, in one of his highly interesting papers, that when his family resided at the Chatham Islands domestic animals were sometimes seriously affected by eating the berries of the karaka. He describes the Moriori method of treating the berries. When these were ripe, persons ascended the trees by means of rude ladders composed of poles lashed to the trunks, and, with the help of rods knocked off the ripened berries; these were placed in baskets and washed in order to remove any foreign matter, after which they were steamed 'for some days' in an umu or steaming pit, being poured in loose. When sufficiently steamed they were re-basketed, the baskets were placed in water, and the berries subjected to a trampling process in order to remove the pulp. (This reminds one of the korua hukari kai of the Maori in past years, a pit in which he placed new potatoes, over which he cast sand, and then by a vigorous trampling removed the skins from them without the trouble of scraping each tuber.) The Moriori then placed his baskets of pulpfreed kernels in the stagnant waters of a swamp, where they were allowed to remain about three weeks in order that all traces of the poisonous quality might be dispelled. When taken out they were dried until they became extremely hard, in which state they would keep for years, and form 'a most tasty and nutritious food.'

Among our Maori folk heroic measures were adopted when a bad case of poisoning by karaka occurred. A gag consisting of dressed flax (Phormium) fibre wound round a stick was placed in the sufferer's mouth, and secured, otherwise his tongue and even his lips might be severely bitten during severe paroxysms. His body was attended to ere it became seriously distorted; old garments or mats were wrapped round his body and limbs, and tightly lashed, so that the trussed body and limbs were straight and rigid. The trussed unfortunate was then placed upright in a deep hole, so dug that, when earth was tamped round his body, he was buried up to the chin, and could make no movement, voluntary or otherwise. During the distressing paroxysms as much water as possible was given him through a kakaho reed which served as a ngongo or tube; he who administered it placed one end of the hollow reed in the patient's mouth, then filled his own mouth with water and forced it down the reed and so down the throat of the buried person. This highl page 47peculiar treatment is said to have induced perspiration. When the sufferer was exhumed, as it were, he was given a steam bath, and, as food, was given a form of porridge or gruel, made by mixing kao kumara (cooked and dried sweet potato) with water and then heating it with hot stones. In most cases the sufferers were careless children, for the dreadful consequences of eating the raw kernel were well known to the people.

Colenso gives a vivid account of the effects of the poison (Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, vol. 4, p. 318). He describes the sad plight of a native lad about twelve years of age whom he saw at Whangarei in the thirties of last century, with all his limbs dreadfully distorted and rigid, unable to move hand, foot, or body, who had to be fed by others, and have the position of his body frequently changed, day and night, in order that he might obtain a little ease. The kernel of the karaka was responsible for this. Colenso could not determine whether or not both processes (steaming and steeping, or 'baking and washing,' as he puts it) were necessary in order to eliminate the poisonous properties of the kernel. He says that karaka trees were strictly preserved, and that the people would camp near them when engaged in gathering and steaming the fruit. Many years ago I used to see such camps, notably on the Whanganui river; whole families would so camp near the groves of karaka and so hold a kind of working picnic. Colenso describes the use of a pole in knocking the berries off the trees, hence the expression ta karaka. He remarks that the steaming process continued for several hours,, or until the next day, or even longer, which seems somewhat vague, and that the kernels were steeped Tor some time, I believe a day or two at least.' After the steeping the kernels were cleansed of the sarcocarp, dried, and stored away. In a paper on vegetable foods of the Maori published in vol. 13 of the above-mentioned Transactions, the same writer remarks concerning the dried kernels: "When used, the kernels, still in their thin yet tough inner skin or husk, were steamed in an earth oven, which softened them for eating."

One account given of the method of gathering these berries states that pickers ascended the trees with baskets and gathered them by hand, that they were not allowed to knock the berries off with a rod, as in the case of hinau berries. It was also considered most unlucky to let any of the plucked fruit fall to the ground; the result of the breaking of these restrictions would probably be that the tree would die. The sexes were compelled to remain apart during the task of gathering and steaming the berries, and unclean women were also barred. The baskets in which the berries were placed must be new ones, and there were other rules that had to be strictly page 48observed. It was deemed an evil omen should an oven stone burst during the cooking operations, as of course such stones sometimes did when heated. Ever the Maori was looking for trouble with his innumerable unlucky signs, evil omens. The large baskets in which the berries were placed for the steaming process were termed tienga or tianga in some districts; the smaller collecting baskets were emptied into these large ones, which were then secured by means of interlacing a cord across the mouth. The stones heated for the pit oven were of large size; when ready the pit was cleared of embers as far as possible, the implement employed being an uru, a form of scoop or shovel. The arranged stones were covered with a thick layer of kawakawa, karamu, and korokio (Macropiper, Coprosma, and Veronica), and water sprinkled over the leaves. All this green leafage protected the baskets, and is said to have imparted an appreciated flavour to the nuts. The oven was then covered in the usual way with mats and earth, and so left for three days and nights ere it was opened. After this the steeping process came, and this continued for some months. The baskets in which the kernels were placed for this long steeping process were made of kiekie leaves by the Whanganui folk, that material being more durable under water than flax (Phormium). One gave kona as a term for the bitter properties of the karaka nut and for its poisonous quality. The flesh of the berry is held by the natives to be poisonous when green.

Nicholas, whose work on New Zealand was published in 1817, speaks of the karaka as 'one of the finest trees that we met with.' Of the kernel prepared for eating he says, 'it is an unctuous consistence extremely ill-flavoured to an European,' in which he is not far out. Polack, a later sojourner here, states distinctly that the leaves of the karaka are Very poraceous,' a statement that I am by no means prepared to deny. Wakefield adds nought to the above accounts save the remark concerning the kernels when eaten, viz., that "Their odour is so offensive that I could never prevail on myself to eat them."

The karaka enters into a peculiar saying of yore intended to illustrate the qualities of strength, endurance, resolution, strenuousness, maturity, etc. Anei nga mea i whakataukitia ai e nga tupuna, ko te kaha, ko te uaua, ko te pakari:

Ko te kaha-Ko te kaha i te toki
Ko te uaua-Ko te uaua i te pakake
Ko te pakari-Ko te pakari i te karaka.
Mo te tangata kaha enei whakatauki.

The three things selected to illustrate these qualities are: 1. The stone adze. 2. The whale. 3. The karaka tree.