Reviving Māori plant knowledge

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 1:27 pm on 6 August 2018
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Photo: Supplied

New book Treasures of Tāne: Plants of Ngāi Tahu aims to illuminate New Zealanders to the many traditional uses for native plants of the South Island.

The author, journalist Rob Tipa, says the book is the culmination of 17 years of work. 

He was originally asked to research plant uses for the Department of Conservation which had approached Te Rūngana o Ngāi Tahu for plant descriptions to go on plaques on the walking tracks. 

Tipa says he was surprised by many of the uses of the 60 plants Ngāi Tahu lists as taonga, and talked to them about doing an expanded version of about 1000 words per plant.

He says he hopes the book will promote the knowledge of New Zealand’s beautiful native bush for locals and gardeners. 

“I would love to see perhaps a bit more understanding of some the plants we have, so if it helps do that, if it helps people realise how underrated some of our native bush is, and quite beautiful in terms of landscape.” 

Ti kouka

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Ti kouka, the 'cabbage tree'.  Photo: 123RF

“The cabbage tree, which was probably the most reliable survival food for southern Māori. 

“They harvested the tap root, and the stems were rich in fructose and those sugars were released when cooked. 

“That was a huge source or a reliable source of sugar, really, and that was often mixed with a lot of different plants.”

Rarauhe

Native bracken fern growing through burnt gorse in Ohinetahi Reserve.

Rarauhe on the Port Hills. Photo: RNZ / Maja Burry

“The bracken fern, it was another subsistence food which apparently was very filling on an empty stomach.

“The roots were peeled, dried, roasted  and pounded to produce a sort of starchy product that was separated from the fibrous roots. 

“That grows throughout New Zealand and some of those best plantations in those early days were actually very carefully defended.” 

Horopito

Lowland horopito.

Lowland horopito. Photo: Public Domain

“One of the best-known natural painkillers in our native bush is called the horopito, which is the pepper tree. 

“It’s a very interesting product because I think scientists have identified about 29 different compounds in that particular plant.

“It has powerful antioxidants, and about four active anti-fungal compounds: significant antiseptic, antifungal and antibacterial properties.” 

Tipa says he was sea kayaking at Lake Te Anau several years ago and camped on the beach, and with no insect repellent the group was “monstered” by sandflies. 

“Our hands were swollen up, faces were swollen up, so I had a stroll along the shore of the lake and I found some horopito bushes growing nearby, we picked a few leaves, threw them in a billy of hot water, heated it up then applied the leaves to our hands.

“In the space of the time it took for the leaves to cool down the swelling had gone and what was a red welt became just white - white marks where the leaves had been.” 

Tītoki

The tītoki tree's seed produce a very high-quality oil which was used by Māori and early European settlers alike.

The tītoki tree's seed produce a very high-quality oil which was used by Māori and early European settlers alike. Photo: Public Domain

“Some of those early European watchmakers that came to New Zealand were delighted to discover this very very high quality oil [in use by Māori]. 

“It was also used in a lot of different scent recipes.” 

Taramea

Taramea, also known as 'wild spaniard' or aciphylla aurea produces a lovely scent which was highly prized as a perfume by Māori and shipped overseas when Europeans arrived.

Taramea, also known as 'wild spaniard' or aciphylla aurea produces a lovely scent which was highly prized as a perfume by Māori and shipped overseas when Europeans arrived. Photo: Public Domain

"The wild spaniard that grows at high altitude on some of our high passes. 

"The resin from taramea was extracted by heating the plant and squeezing the resin out of the base of the plant, that was often mixed with other plants including the oil from tītoki, which I guess makes it more fluid. 

"I did try harvesting some scent from taramea on the Danseys Pass in Central Otago a few years ago, it was actually snowing on the pass as we went over the top. 

"We could see this white substance at the base of the spiky Spaniard, and I thought it was snow or ice and we started scraping it.

"You could actually scrape it off in your hands and roll it up into a ball in your fingers, and just the most exquisite scent." 

"That was a very high value product, it was exported, it was traded … sometimes mixed from piaterata which was gum from the lemonwood which was another highly prized scent." 

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