Forest Lore of the Maori
(Alectryon excelsum). Here we have another tree that was valued by the Maori, although it had little economic worth. True it is that children ate the pulpy part of the berry, which is by no means of a pleasing taste, but its value as a food was nought. It was the seed that the Maori valued, the seed that one sees protruding from the red pulp of a ripe berry. From this seed the Maori produced what we may term his superior toilet-oil. One "Crayon," who contributed an article to the Auckland Standard in April, 1842, gives some account of many natural products of this land; concerning the titoki tree he tells us that the berries thereof yield an oil. "The natives page 56themselves use if for hair oil, by steaming the berry in their ovens, and then pressing it out." Rev. Wade, of the latter 'thirties, says of the tree: "An oil expressed from the berry is used by the natives to anoint their heads." My Waiapu contributors told me that the berries of the titoki were collected in baskets, and these baskets were then placed in water and subjected to a vigorous trampling process in order that the pulp might be separated from the seeds. The crushed berries were then washed until the seeds were freed from all flesh, and the clean seeds were then put in a strong wooden vessel and thereon pounded and crushed with a tuki or pestle. The crushed seeds were then placed in a sort of plaited bag of peculiar form, and this was twisted in order to bring pressure to bear on the crushed seeds and so express the oil they contain; this oil was collected in an ipu (bowl). These informants did not allude to any steaming process; this is no proof that such a process was not employed in the district, inasmuch as it is quite easy to omit a detail when describing some form of manipulation that has long been obsolete. One of the Porou folk stated that the bag was called a tawiri titoki, and this kete, as he described it, was made of dressed Phormium fibre by a lacing process termed nati. The crushed berries were placed in this, and, at each end of this elongated bag a strong rod was secured crosswise, whereby the bag and its contents were mimirotia, i.e., two men manipulated the cross pieces, twisting them in opposite directions. It was necessary that the bag be strongly made.
Mr. Albert Allom, writing in 1849, remarked that: "The natives extract the oil by first bruising the kernels and then laying them in a flaxen mat; this is then rolled up and screwed in a contrary direction by a native at each end; the oil is thus expressed." Here also no mention is made of steaming. The Matatua folk of the Bay of Plenty did not mention a steaming process, but one man did tell me that, ere the crushed seeds were subjected to pressure, some hot stones were placed among them in order to increase the flow of oil. The seeds were placed in a form of bag termed a ngehingehi and kopa (in full kopa whakawiri titoki, i.e., titoki wringing kopa); this was made by plaiting strips of green Phormium, and was about 3 ft. in length and 6 in. in diameter. Filled with seeds and securely bound, this bag was then severely pounded so as to crush the berries, after which the tourniquet device was employed to express the oil. Colenso speaks of: "A simple machine, composed of a short lever with short straps, on the plan of a tourniquet, was also used by them in expressing oil from the seeds of the titoki, etc." Evidently the 'oil press' described above. Whanganui natives informed me that the long, narrow kete with tapering ends terminating in strong cords page 57was known as a koheke to them, and was made of dressed Phormium fibre. A similar receptacle was used for expressing juice from tutu berries, termed koheke probably from heke, 'to drip, to descend.' Torino or torino putohe is another name for this peculiar bag, and Williams, in his Maori Dictionary, states that titoki berries were placed in a torino, then put in a steam oven to be cooked, then pounded, after which the bag was twisted to express the oil. Williams also gives pu, 'a wicker receptacle' in which titoki berries were enclosed for the purpose of extracting the oil. This would be a pu titoki, for pu is a generic term for anything of bag-like form; also a hollow cylinder is a pu. One described the bag used when expressing the oil as a torino putohe, but I cannot say what the value of the latter word is in this case. He mentioned the steaming process, and, later, referred to the bag as a ngehingehi.
It is not improbable that the bag-press made of dressed fibre at Whanganui was also used elsewhere. Pio of Ngatiawa explained that the kopa of his people was of a close texture and in appearance resembled a webbing saddle-girth. The kernels were pounded and poured into the long bag, where some very hot stones were put among them. This heat, combined with the pressure induced by strenuous twisting, caused the oil to exude from the bag. A brief account of this method is given in the original Maori in No. 7 of our Addenda.
Another contributor terms the elongated, narrow bag used a kopua, each tapering end of which merged into a strong cord to which the short rods used as handles in the twisting process were attached. The close-plait kopua was filled with the seeds, and then securely sewn up, after which it was laid on a flat stone that was covered with a doubled-up old mat. The filled receptacle was then thumped vigorously with a pounder, one informant says a stone pounder, the mat serving as a muffle to prevent the flax strips of the kopua being severed by the heavy blows of the patu or beater. The bag of crushed seeds was then placed in a steaming-pit (umu), laid on a thick layer of leaves placed on the heated stones. Another layer of leafy branchlets, often koromiko (Veronica), was spread over the bag, and then the whole covered in the usual way with mats and earth. After a certain lapse of time the pit was opened up, the kopua turned over, and the whole covered in again for another period of steaming. When recovered from the oven then the kaimimiro, or twister, at once commenced his task, ere the crushed and heated seeds had time to cool off. The presser attached the two rods to the ends of the bag, one of these he laid on the ground, and then stood on it, placing a foot on either side of the cord connecting rod page 58 page 59 and bag. He then grasped the other rod handle, with a hand on either side of the connecting cord, and, keeping the bag taut or straightened out, he commenced to twist the whole by turning the handle round as one uses an auger. It was like a person wringing out a wet sheet, save that our oil-presser gained much additional power by attaching and operating the rod-handle. With two operators, as it was often worked, both rods served as wringing handles. Colenso cites this oil-pressing device as an illustration of the principle of the screw, but it was only the movement that so resembled it. He also recognized the principle of the pulley 'in rollers for their canoes and for hoisting up heavy weights, etc.', but the Maori did not use rollers for moving such heavy bodies as canoes, stockade posts, etc.; he employed skids (neke, rango), representing quite a different principle. Colenso's next remark shews that he was actually speaking of skids, not rollers: "Which rollers they often smoothed and wetted, or covered with wet seaweed, to make the body to be moved the better to glide." This method is adopted with skids, but not with rollers, in connection with the latter it would serve no useful purpose. The simple mechanical contrivances of the Maori, the oil-press, drill, skid, balista, etc., represent the dawn of science. But of a verity this is digression.
As the operator continued to turn his hand-grip he twisted the bag, thereby gradually tightening it until the oil was seen exuding from the fabric and trickling down into a bowl or trough so placed as to receive it. The oil is of a greenish colour. This account was obtained in the north.
The Maori will tell you that some trees, as the titoki, hinau, tawa, rimu, etc., do not bear fruit every year, but he does not mean that you can range the forest and find no titoki, say, in fruit during the season; he merely means that certain species do not fruit abundantly every season, in which he is perfectly right. As one highly entertaining old bushman put it to me, "A tree bears fruit kia puta tana hiahia [when it wants to]", and who shall say that it is not so? In former days old forest rangers watched the trees closely each year in order that they might foretell the conditions of the coming season, the plenteous crop, or otherwise, of berries of different species, the birds that would be numerous; many things, yea, even to the gleaming stars above, were consulted in this all-important quest, the gaining of food supplies.
A saying of old: Hepeka tangata, apa he peka titoki: It is a human branch, it is not as if it were a titoki branch, that is to say a titoki branch dies, decays, and is no more known, but the human branch lives on in its descendants. In the saying: He peka titoki (ara he kano rangatira) one recognizes in he kano rangatira a person of superior page 60status, while Hei te tau titoki refers to the fact that this tree does not fruit freely every year. Again the saying: He rangatira no te tau titoki: A chief or exquisite of the titoki season strikes at one who, in a season when the berries are plentiful, can use the prized toilet oil expressed from those berries, whereas in other seasons it would all be reserved for his superiors. A person or people hard to conquer might be alluded to as he peka titoki, a titoki branch, the wood of which is extremely tough.
The oil obtained as described above is said to be the finest known to the Maori, but it was not available in large quantities; hence the use of inferior kinds, shark-oil for example. Titoki-oil was kept in small gourd-vessels (taha hinu), and it was rendered fragrant by means of steeping in it leaves of heketara (Olearia spj, koareare (Nothopanax Edgerleyi), manuka (Leptospemum), and kopuru (a moss). The fragrant pia tarata, a gummy exudation from the tree Pittosporum eugenioides when it is wounded, was also used for the purpose. This prized oil was used as a hair-oil, and also for the purpose of making a kind of scent-sachet, of which more anon. But the white man came with his supplies of whale-oil and fats, and later, hair-oils of peculiar greasiness, with cheap scents of unpleasing odour; these put an end to the tedious process of procuring the hinu titoki.