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The Maori: Yesterday and To-day

The Maori Sugar-tree

The Maori Sugar-tree.

A whole bookful of Maori story and folk-talk could be written about that familiar object in the New Zealand landscape, the common cabbage tree, the plant of many names—the palm-lily, asphodel, cordyline australis of the botanist, the ti or whanake of the Maori. Everywhere in the back-country its tall pencil trunks dot the landscape; everywhere its long sword leaves switch and toss in the wind. And native legend twines as thickly about it as you see some of the page 174 cabbage-trees in the public parks and gardens grown about with the white man's ivy.

To South Island natives the ti-kouka, as it is usually called there, was something more than a landscape ornament or a shade for the tribal altar of incantation. It was their sweets tree; it supplied the sugar for which the palate pined. The early summer was the Ngai-Tahu tribe's season for sweet meats working. The name given to the cabbage-tree sugar was kauru, and the getting of kauru was the chief industry in ancient times on the Canterbury Plains during the month of November.

The old men of the South Island, from Kaikoura to Otago, have given me many curiously interesting details of the kauru-working. This was the procedure as described by the late Hone Taare Tikai, of Rapaki, Lyttelton Harbour:

Young cabbage-trees, four to six feet high, were selected for the process of extracting the sugar These ti-kouka were cut down close to the roots, and often also the largest roots were taken. After being cut into convenient lengths the bark and the outer wood were stripped off with small sharp axes until the heart or pith alone remained. This sappy and fibrous heart, containing the saccharine substance was then sun-dried and cooked. The roots, which contained the most sugar, required a longer treat ment than the trunk portions.

The sections of ti were spread out on platforms to dry in the sun, sometimes for several weeks; them the great oven, the umu-ti, was made. This earth oven, many yards long, was prepared in the same way as the usual hāngi, or food-oven, with red-hot stones on which water was thrown to produce steam. The kauru stalks were packed in bundles in flax kits, soaked with water and laid in this oven and covered up. The cooking occupied all night; sometimes in the case of the roots the oven was left untouched page 175 for about forty-eight hours. The process was attended with priestly ceremony, and the oven was tapu. This tapu, in fact, extended to the people also, for certain restrictions were observed during the steaming of the kauru. The men of the village were required to absent themselves from their wives; a breach of this was liable to bring down upon the tapu-brenkers quick punishment by club law. Such a hara, a transgression, was invariably detected, said my Maori informant. If when the oven was opened it were found that the kauru was not properly done, not cooked to the right degree, it was known that some couple had disregarded the tapu of the umu-ti, and the offenders would quickly be discovered by the tohunga. Then, unless the culprits were so powerful that they could defy the law, they would be patu'd, killed with a stone club. Such was the penalty for spoiling the tribal sweets oven.

When the oven was uncovered, the kits of kauru, if properly done, were taken out and packed away. The cooking reduced the stuff to a kind of sweet flour, intermingled, however, with much woody fibre. This floury substance, which was kept for winter use, was often made into a sort of porridge by mixing it with water. Often, however, it was eaten dry, a Maori substitute for chewing gum. It was almost as dark as liquorice, except for the woody fibres, and a stick of this aboriginal liquorice was a popular sweetmeat.

There were usually two cuttings of the ti tree in the year, one in late October or November, and one in March. The young ti, after being cut, would shoot up again, similarly to the korau (mamaku) fern-tree, which was cultivated by the Taranaki natives in the old days for the sake of its edible parts. The ti harvest marked the first food-gathering season of the Maori year. The March cutting would be followed by the weka-snaring page 176 season (April), then the trapping of the kiore Maori, the native rat (May), and the catching of the piharau or lamprey in June.

The first umu-ti workers in New Zealand, said Tikao, were the Hawea people, a dark curly-haired race from the north. They brought the knowledge of the sweet-tasting kauru with them from the tropic lands, and they taught it to succeeding generations.

The umu-ti is known from end to end of Polynesia, from the Paumotus and the Gambier Islands, in the extreme east, to Fiji in the west. It is associated with the strange fire-walking ceremony. Roots somewhat similar to that of our ti were cooked in great quantities in some of the island, particularly in Raiatea, in the Society Group, which appears to have been the original seat of the fire walking rite, and in Rarotonga and Fiji, and the bare-footed passage of the priests and people over the red-hot stones seems to have been considered as giving added mana and efficiency to the cooking. And among our New Zealand Maori there are lingering remembrances of this very ancient rite of their Asiatic-Polynesian ancestors.