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Forest Lore of the Maori



The Maori was given to the use of masticatories, when procurable, more especially the younger folk, and the substances so used were, with the exception of bitumen, all vegetable gums or resins. The following notes on the subject have been collected.

Kapia. Resin of the kauri tree (Agathis australis). The fresh gum of this tree was prized as a chewing-gum, but it was procurable only in the northern parts of the North Island, hence the tribes south of the kauri-line had to use other substances. Crozet seems to have seen natives chewing it at the Bay of Islands in 1772; he remarks: I have also seen them eat a sort of green gum which they like immensely, but I was not able to find out the tree from which they obtained it. Some of us ate of this by letting it drop in our mouths. We all found it very heating." The penultimate sentence is somewhat puzzling, but the gum may have been heating if they ate it. The Maori, always a sociable creature, and a generous, did not fail when it was a question of sharing a good thing, and so a chew of gum was passed round from page 67hand to hand, or rather from mouth to mouth, in the most hospitable manner. When all had tired of this cud-chewing then the gum was laid aside for future use. Angas, a traveller of the 'forties, remarks that: "The greatest compliment an old Maori woman can pay a guest, is to offer him the well-masticated quid of cowdie [kauri] gum which she takes from her own mouth."

Two species of Pittosporum furnished gum for Maori quidchewers, one, P. eugenioides, providing the pia tarata, already described; the other, P. tenuifolium, a similar exudation. The juice of a species of Sonchus was also collected, and, when by exposure it had become thickened, it was chewed together with the gum. In procuring the juice of the puwha or Sonchus the plant was wounded, as by plucking leaves off it, etc., and the sap or juice exuded and gradually lost its fluidity and thickened, whereupon it was picked off and formed into a ball for chewing purposes; the bitter taste of the substance gradually passed away. These luscious quids were passed onto the chewers' children, and one of my informants, a middle-aged woman, possessed one that had already been masticated by two previous generations; it was, unhappily, lost during the fight at Orangikawa in 1869, together with a little carved box it was kept in, a fact that the worthy dame never ceased to deplore. This substance was obtained from three species, pororua, rau-roroa, and puha tiotio.

Colenso tells us that Rotorua natives were much given to using a resinous gum obtained from the pukapuka (Brachyglottis repanda) as a masticatory. R. H. Matthews has stated that this gum is termed kouaha by the Maori, and that it is poisonous, so that, presumably, it was subjected to some purifying process ere being used. Another brief note is to the effect that a similar gum was obtained from the small tree known as wharangi-kura, an aromatic substance that was collected and chewed by the Maori. This, I take it, refers to Olearia rnacrodonta, though the koheriki (Melicope ternata) seems to be also known as wharangi. One writer in the Australian and N.Z. Gazette of 1858 stated that the gum of the rangiora was used by the Maori for rendering fragrant his toilet-roll. Dr. A. S. Thomson remarked that the Maori obtained 'an edible gum from the roots of the leaves of the flax plant' (Phormium), but I do not think that the Maori ate much of that gum. Angas gives us the last thing in masticatories, as seen by him in the Waikato district: "…… the whole family were successively chewing a large piece of filthy pork rind, which was handed from one to another."

As to bitumen, known to the natives as mimiha and kauri-tawhiti the Maori seems to have no knowledge of its true nature or origin. One stated that it is a form of gum found on the sea beach, hence page 68probably its name of kauri-tawhiti, foreign kauri, from afar, while another explained it as being a product of the whale called mimiha; a third pronounced it to be seal fat, he ngako no te kekeno. Dr. Thomson tells us that this substance is pure bitumen, and that the masticatories of the Maori simply excite the salivary organs, none are narcotic; the substance is not often found.

Pungapunga, renga, pua raupo Pollen of raupo (Typha angustifolia).

The following terms are connected with this plant:—

  • Hune
  • Tāhune
  • Tāhuna Pappus of seeds of raupo.
  • Tāhunga Pappus of seeds of raupo.
  • Karito—Young snoots of raupo.
  • Koareare, Aka koareare-—Edible rhizome of raupo. See koreirei, kouka, piaka.
  • Konehu—Pollen of raupo. See nehu pungapunga.
  • Koreirei, Kōuka—Rootstock of raupo. See koareare, kouka, piaka.
  • Nehu raupo—Pollen of raupo. See konehu, pungapunga.
  • Ngai—Dried leaves of raupo.
  • Ngatu—Lower part of stem of raupo.
  • Piaka—Edible rhizome of raupo. See koareare, koreirei, kōuka.
  • Pungapunga—Pollen of raupo, also a cake made of it. See konehu, nehu.

The term pua is also applied by the Maori to the pollen of this plant. Cheeseman's Flora tells us briefly that: "The pollen was formerly collected by the Maoris, made into cakes with water, and then baked and eaten; the starchy rhizome was also used for food in times of scarcity." A lone East Coast note is to the effect that the rito or young, undeveloped leaves of this plant were sometimes cooked in a steaming pit, and eaten as greens. This was probably a rare occurence.

In some districts a considerable amount of this pua or pollenbread was formerly made, in others but little, while some forestdwelling folk rarely saw it, the quantity being based on the amount available, the plenty or otherwise of other food supplies, and local conditions generally. Where extensive raupo swamps existed many people might join in collecting the pungapunga, and, if the swamps were anyway distant from the village, then the people would probably camp near it while engaged at their task, in which case a whole family would so move, not merely adults. Experts would decide when the work should commence, and care had to be taken to prevent loss of the coveted pollen, hence the work of procuring it was performed early in the morning, ere the sun rendered the pappus light, and so easily blown away. The spikes were broken off and tapped page 69on a close-woven mat, or the hune was stripped off, and the pollen was exposed to the sun in order to dry it thoroughly. It was then sifted in close-plait baskets, and the pollen fell into a bark vessel, from which it was removed later and put into baskets lined with large leaves. The meal-cakes made of this material were cooked in a steam oven, and formed a much appreciated food. Taylor tells us that the pollen was cooked in the leaf-lined baskets. There were a number of restrictions and superstitions pertaining to the procuring and cooking of this comestible. I was told in one place that the meal was cooked in small baskets (tapora).

The Tuhoe folk were wont to collect large quantities of the small green beetle, called by them tutaeruru and kekerewai, that were formerly seen in immense numbers on manuka (leptospermum) in summer. These were pounded in a wooden vessel, then mixed with the raupo-pollen and the compound was then put into small baskets and cooked in a steam oven, which is the tapora mode of cooking. This vanishing beetle was also known by the singular name of 'the rnanu a Rehua; other names for it elsewhere are kerewai, kiriwai and reporepowai; its official title is Pyronota festiva.

The roots or rhizomes of this plant also furnished a small food supply in the form of a kind of fecula or farina; this is found in the inner part of the rootstock, of which the outer part is peeled off much as we peel a banana, to expose the soft, white, and edible inner part, which, in a large root, contains a considerable amount of mealy matter. As in the case of fern-root one must select a place where conditions, as to soil, etc., favour the growth of the raupo bulrush, in order to obtain fine, large roots. Under poor conditions one sees much bulrush and bracken that produces small, hard, fibre-packed roots quite useless to the food-seeker. These soft interior parts of the bulrush roots were sometimes eaten raw, the fibrous matter being spat out by the eater after mastication, as in the case of the fern or bracken-roots (aruhe). The taste of the bulrush fecula is rather pleasant, and, if made into a cake and cooked, it might be a desirable comestible. The edible part was sometimes cooked by the common steaming process, after which the fecula is more easily detached from the fibrous matter. One informant stated that the peeled root was cut into short pieces, and these were put into a gourd vessel and so deposited in the steaming pits; when cooked they were rubbed in the hands so as to disengage the fecula. Possibly this meal may have been formed into cakes and re-cooked, as in the case of fernroot meal, but I have never gathered any proof that the Maori so treated it. Taylor gives an interesting account of his first acquaintance with this unimportant food-supply; an old bushman showed him how to page 70support life in the bush when ordinary rations were exhausted. A number of us have had a similar experience, when some old native, trained in bush-craft and 'broke to every known mischance' in the way of short commons, has pointed out the various inferior edible products of the bush—berries, roots, leaves, wood-grubs and other delicacies. Dieffenbach assures us that raupo roots are amylaceous, which should make the matter quite clear.