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The Coming of the Maori

[Plant Foods]

page 85

The first settlers brought no cultivable food plants or domesticated animals and, therefore, had to depend entirely on what the sea, rivers, land, and forests could supply. The Toi settlers also brought no cultivable food plants but they had the advantage that the local food resources had been thoroughly investigated by their predecessors. The native foods enumerated to Toi by Raru, a Tamaki woman of the first settlers, were as follows (81, pp. 82, 101):

  • lka moana (sea fish)
  • Ika wai whenua (fresh water fish)
  • Pipi moana (sea water shell fish)
  • Pipi wai whenua (land water shell fish)
  • Manu (birds)

The vegetable foods including roots, pith, leaves, fruit and berries form an impressive list. Even so Raru left a few out which I have included with an asterisk before them.

All the plants in the table are widely distributed. Their value as food varied considerably. The most important was the aruhe or rhizome of the bracken fern usually alluded to in English writings as fern root. It was widely spread except in dense forest areas and it was available all the year round. The rhizomes were dug up with a pointed stick and stacked in short lengths on end to dry before being removed to the storehouse where they were hung from the roof in bundles. They were cooked over the coals but never in the earth oven. They were beaten to remove the outer hard skin, chewed end on, and the fibrous material ejected as it collected in the mouth. The necessity for beating required a flat waterworn stone as an anvil and a wooden beater as part of the kitchen equipment. The beaters were termed descriptively patu-aruhe and specifically paoi. They were well made from a hard wood, round in section page 86with a rounded end, and with the handle rounded to a lesser diameter to fit the grip (Fig. 1). As a better preparation for chiefs, the pounded fern root was worked with the hands in water in a wooden bowl to extract the starchy material and the water decanted after the starch had settled at the bottom of the bowl. The starch was then made into cakes
Indigenous Food Plants
Edible PastMaori and Popular NamesScientific Name of Plant
RootsAruhe-para (fern root)Pteris aquilina var. esculenta
RootsAruhe-papawai (fern root)Pteris aquilina var. esculenta
RootsAruhe-whatiwhati (fern root)Pleris aquilina var. esculenta
RootsAruhe-paranui (fern root)Pteris aquilina var. esculenta
RootsTi whanake (cabbage tree)Cordyline australis
Roots∗Raupo (bulrush)Typha angustifolia
Roots∗Para-tawhiti (horse-shoe fern)Marattia fraxinea
PithMamaku (tree fern)Cyathea medullaris
Young shootsPikopiko (bush fern)Polystichum richardi
Inner leaf shootsKouka (cabbage tree)Cordyline australis
LeavesKoran (wild swede)Brassica campeslris
LeavesPoniu (wild cress)Nasturtium palestre
LeavesPuwha (sow-thistle)Sonchus oleraceus
Flower and fruit∗Kiekie and whekiFreycinetia banksii
Berries∗KarakaCorynocarpus laevigata
Berries∗HinauElaeocarpus dentatus
Berries∗TawaBeilschmiedia tawa
Berries∗Para hua kareao (supple jack)Rhipogonum scandens
BerriesMataiPodocarpus spicatus
BerriesKahika (white pine)Podocarpus dacrydioides
BerriesTutuCoriaria ruscifolia
BerriesKonini (wild fuchsia)Fuchsia excorticata
BerriesPoroporoSolanum aviculare
BerriesPatotaraLeucopogon fraseri
Berries∗TitokiAlectryon excelsum
PollenRaupoTypha angustifolia
Heart of leaf base∗Nikau (N.Z. palm)Rhopalostylis sapida
which were free of fibre. The fern root was the richest source of carbohydrates and it took the place of the cultivated tubers of other areas. The rhizomes evidently varied as to the amount of fibre present and hence led to the naming of the four varieties in the list.

The term ti is applied specifically to the Cordyline terminalis throughout Polynesia, where the underground stem was cooked for its saccharine contents. The Maori list gives the ti whanake (Cordyline australis) as being used for a similar purpose. The Cordyline australis is a tall branching tree and the centres of the leaf heads (kouka) were picked out for cooking as a green which probably save rise to the popular English name page 87of "cabbage tree". The plant had the two names of ti whanake and ti kouka or kauka. There were four other species of Cordyline in New Zealand, one of which was cultivated in the north Auckland area under the name of ti pore. The ti pore was held by botanists to be the Cordyline terminalis which was probably brought by the Maoris from central Polynesia as a food plant. Unfortunately, it appears to have become extinct.

Fig. 1. Fern root beaters (after Best, 16, vol. 1, p. 428).

Fig. 1. Fern root beaters (after Best, 16, vol. 1, p. 428).

The raupo grows extensively in swamps and the roots were eaten, as was also the pollen on some of the flower heads. The para-tawhiti fern has large edible corms which were usually cooked on the coals. The presence of another species of this plant in the Society and Cook Islands probably led to the name of tawhiti being applied to it and then to its inclusion in the cargo of some of the later canoes. It had a restricted distribution but was very useful as a food in the forest areas in which it grew.

The pith of the tree fern was used in other parts of Polynesia where the tree fern was available. The pith part was at the top of the trunk under the leaf spread. The tree was cut down and the pith cooked in sections in the earth oven. This food was prepared down to fairly recent times to give local colour to feasts. The middle part of the top of the trunk of the nikau palm, just under the leaf spread, was eaten raw. Similar food is provided by the coconut palms in Polynesia but as coconut trees are too valuable to cut down, the material was usually obtained from trees cut down for other purposes or that had been blown down by gales. It is now popularly referred to as a "million dollar salad."

The curling shoots of the pikopiko were available at all times practically and were cooked as a green. The korau and poniu greens, I know page 88nothing about In the kiekie flowers, the spadices are surrounded by white fleshy bracts termed tawhara which are sweet and sugary with an aromatic flavour. The ripe fruit termed ureure or wheki was also eaten.

The berries of the various plants, kareao, matai, kahika, konini, poroporo, titoki and patotara, are transient and were not important as food. The tutu has long, luscious drupes, from which a sweet juice was obtained but the seeds had to be carefully discarded as they were poisonous.

The important berry-bearing trees were the karaka, hinau, and tawa. The karaka has a prolific crop of berries about the size of a plum. The outer fleshy part has an agreeable taste when ripe but the important food part consists of the inside kernels. The kernels are poisonous if eaten raw but cooking destroys the ferment which acts on an alkaloid termed karakine and releases prussic acid. The ripe berries mat had fallen from the tree were collected in baskets and trodden with the bare feet in water to work off the outer fleshy part. The berries were cooked in a large earth oven for over 24 hours and then placed in fenced enclosures in still water where they were left for use as required. This method laid up a reserve supply of food as the water enclosures also served the purpose of storehouses. The gathering and cooking of the berries in one common earth oven was a community effort but each family had its own water enclosure. The Moriori (66, p. 7) of Chatham Islands prepared the karaka berries in the same way and hence the discovery of the method of cooking and soaking in water may safely be said to have been originated in New Zealand before the arrival of the Fleet.

The hinau berries were pounded in a bowl to separate the pulp from the hard seeds which were ejected. A stone was used as a pestle (tuki) but it does not seem to have developed into a standard implement. The pulp was made into cakes and cooked in the earth oven. Though this form of food was available for a limited period it was regarded highly enough to be deemed worthy of a special saying:

Kia whakaoho koe i taku moe,
Ko te whatu-turei a Rua.
If you arouse me from my sleep,
Let it be for the hinau preparation of Rua.

Modern Maoris have expressed surprise that a food that was unimportant in their opinion should have been held in such high opinion in the past I believe that the saying or the sentiment preceded the coming of the Fleet when the hinau preparation deserved a high regard.

The tawa berries have a non-poisonous kernel. I understand that they were cooked on the coals or hot ashes much like popcorn. The berries which are abundant could be stored probably for some time. The tawa is a forest tree in distinction to the karaka which grows on the coast and page 89not far inland. Hence it was an important food for part of the year to forest tribes and they have originated sayings as to its superiority over the karaka.

The Moriori had no cultivations. Their vegetable foods consisted of fern root (eruhe), preserved karaka kernels, and the heart (rito) of the nikau palm, as in New Zealand. Shand (66, p. 7) states that they also used the roots of rushes (wi) and kakaha (Astelia banksii) as food and the roots of toetoe as medicine.

The coming of the Fleet in 1350 ushered in a new era by the introduction of cultivated food plants from central Polynesia. The food plants that survived the climate and became established were the following:

Kumara (sweet potato) Ipomoea batatas
Taro Colocasia antiquorum
Uhi, uwhi (yam) Dioscorea sp.
Hue (gourd) Laginaria vulgaris

The sweet potato was the most important and it spread as far as the northern part of the South Island. Its cultivation required more attention than in Polynesia and as a result a ritual with chants was developed for use when planting to ensure the aid of specific kumara gods to counteract any inimical effects of climate and weather and thus promote a prolific crop. The cultivations were carefully prepared, weeds and brushwood being cleared, burned, and the ashes restored to the soil. As the kumara grows better in gravelly soil, pits were often dug near the cultivation and the fine gravel obtained in the subsoil below the layer of humus was spread over the cultivated area and mixed with the soil. The large pits that can be seen near the railway line between Ngaruawahia and Hamilton are held to have been made for the purpose of obtaining subsoil gravel. The investigations made by the Cawthron Institute on the old Maori cultivations at Waimea in Nelson reveal a similar technique and soil analysis proved that as a result of burning and restoring the ashes to the ground, the soil of the old Maori cultivation was richer in phosphoric acid than the adjoining soil outside the garden. The soil was loosened to form rows of spaced mounds by men working in unison often to the accompaniment of chants. Women assisted by further preparing the soil and heaping it into mounds (ahu). The seed tubers were provided by the female head of the household for each family patch (māra) of prepared ground. One tuber was planted in each mound with the long axis in a north and south direction so that the morning and afternoon sun would give equal warmth to the two sides of the seed tuber. In modern times, seed tubers were allowed to shoot and the shoots were planted in the mounds instead of tubers.

page 90
A variety of gardening implements is shown in Figure 2. An improvement was made on the ordinary pointed stick (ko) used in Polynesia by trimming the pointed end into a somewhat flatter blade and lashing a step to it but the improved implement retained the name of ko (a). Some steps were plain (b) and others carved (c). In many digging sticks the upper end of the shaft was finished with a crescent or with open
Fig. 2. Gardening implements (after Best, 19).a, ko; b, ko step, plain; c, ko step, carved; d, ko, carved end of shaft; e, kaheru, long; f, kaheru, short; g, kaheru, narrow blade; h, paddle-shaped; weeder; i, timo grubber.

Fig. 2. Gardening implements (after Best, 19).
a, ko; b, ko step, plain; c, ko step, carved; d, ko, carved end of shaft; e, kaheru, long; f, kaheru, short; g, kaheru, narrow blade; h, paddle-shaped; weeder; i, timo grubber.

carving (d). Special implements were made for heaping the mounds and weeding before the vines spread. Old specimens have been found in swamps adjoining the cultivations. A form with a rectangular blade and long handle (e) resembles the European spade in appearance but the form was evidently old for they were found in swamps in Taranaki and were termed kaheru. A specimen with a rectangular blade and a short page 91handle (f) was found in a Waikato swamp. Others had a long and narrow blade (g). A common type found in the north Auckland area was shaped like a small paddle (h) and a bent stick implement (timo), like a primitive short-handled grubber (i), was used in breaking up lumps and heaping the mounds. The great variety in the shapes of garden implements is figured by Best (19).

In Polynesia, the sweet potato was not regarded as highly as the taro or breadfruit and there was an absence of the religious ritual in planting that prevailed in New Zealand. The digging implement was an ordinary pointed stick and the step was never used with it though carved steps were used on Marquesan stilts that in shape and lashing somewhat resembled the steps of the Maori digging implements. The stepped digging implement and the mounding or weeding implements were local Maori developments.

The taro was more limited in distribution than the sweet potato and it required more care and attention. Sandy soil was more suitable for its growth and in some cultivations, sea sand had been carried some distance to mix with the soil. The plants were planted on the flat without raised mounds and the irrigation terraces made in central Polynesia have not been observed. The digging stick and the accessory implements used with the sweet potato were also used in planting and weeding the taro patches. The taro crops were never extensive enough to produce a continuous supply for the year and taro was more in the nature of an extra choice food. Women in olden times counted their guests before they went to draw a like number of taro from the store pit and hence taro was referred to as "Nga kai tatau a Whaitiri" (the counted food of Whaitiri). It was due to the limited quantity that the people were content to eat them without pounding or mashing and hence the stone food pounders so characteristic of central Polynesia were not made in New Zealand. In the Cook Islands, a thick stake with a rounded lower end and the upper end trimmed to a grip was used for making the holes in which the taro was planted.

The yam had the smallest distribution of all and were it not for Cook's reference to it, its presence in New Zealand might have been doubtful. Cook (25, vol. 2, p. 322) saw it in Tolaga Bay and he (25, vol. 3, p. 422) further stated that "Of the yams and potatoes [kumara] there are plantations consisting of many acres …".

The gourd (hue) was grown principally to provide containers for water and for preserved birds. For water containers (taha), the mature gourds were pierced with a round hole on the neck or narrow part near the stalk end. In Polynesia, water or sea water was poured into the gourd and after the flesh had rotted, the seeds and liquified flesh were shaken out through the hole. A similar procedure was probably followed in New page 92Zealand. The hard rind formed an efficient water bottle. The gourd food containers are described on page 99.

Calabash water containers were common throughout the high islands of Polynesia and they were often enclosed in a coarse net of sennit for suspension. The Hawaiians had varieties of gourds of different shapes which were used for many purposes besides water containers. Some were decorated with geometrical designs characteristic of their art.

The problem of food storage led to different solutions in Polynesia and New Zealand. In Polynesia, the tropical climate produced a rotation of food crops throughout the year. When the mature taro was dug up, the trimmed head was planted to produce another crop. The sweet potato produces more than one crop a year. The breadfruit yields three or four crops annually and the coconut bears fruit throughout the year. Thus the sequence of yields did not necessitate storing food in large quantities—with two exceptions. The yam, which was prolific in western Polynesia, was stored in yam houses and the breadfruit throughout Polynesia, except in Hawaii, was stored in pits lined with leaves and covered over to allow the fruit to ferment. The breadfruit in some crops yielded more than could be eaten at the time and hence the surplus fruit was pitted to prevent waste. Fermented breadfruit, however, proved a good reserve food when other crops failed and, furthermore, it formed a change of food that was relished so much that it became the staple food in the Marquesas and Mangareva. In New Zealand, the cold climate allowed of but one crop a year and hence enough taro and sweet potato had to be planted to furnish a year's supply. The storage of the year's supply was met in different ways. On the west coast of the North Island and some other districts, the tubers were carefully stored in fern-covered bins in domeshaped, underground chambers (rua kumara) with an overhead wooden trap door. On the east coast, small houses with a pitched roof were partly built into the side of a hill and the exposed part of the roof thickly covered over with earth. Thus the difference in climate led to further adjustments in Maori culture and the necessity for storing the one annual crop led to the invention of the storage-pit and the earth-covered storehouse.

But though the introduction of cultivated food plants led to many local inventions, the supply produced was never sufficient to feed the entire population the whole year round. In many parts, particularly in the South Island, the introductions did not benefit the inhabitants because the plants would not grow. Thus the indigenous foods remained important and the fern root, even in the kumara and taro growing districts, still remained a never failing source of starchy food. Weather conditions, insect pests, and rats had no effect in diminishing the supply of fern root. It was always available and hence the appreciative saying page 93applied to fern root, "Te tutanga te unuhia" (the staple which can never fail). Every household had its wooden fern-root beaters (paoi) at the time of European settlement and it was the introduction of the Irish (American) potato and flour which led to the abandonment of fern root as food. The other indigenous foods remained in current use to add variety to the diet but as the diet became more and more Europeanized, the old Maori foods were gradually dropped.