Harakeke and wharariki
Harakeke (flax) and wharariki (mountain flax) were the main plants used for weaving. Their tough, sword-shaped leaves were woven into kete (baskets), sails, tukutuku panels and fishing nets. Muka, the prepared fibre of flax, was made into cord for tying adzes, fences, houses and canoes.
A poultice made from flax leaves disinfected wounds. Nectar or wai kōrari from the flowers was sometimes added to food as a sweetener, or made into a refreshing drink.
Nīkau, New Zealand’s only native palm tree, is found as far south as Banks Peninsula and Greymouth. It grows up to 10 metres tall. The trunks were used for house posts or walls, the fronds for roofs, and the leaves for weaving. The base of the fronds, which naturally holds rainwater, was used as a bowl. The young leaves in the heart of the bowl can be eaten raw or cooked, although removing them can kill the tree. They have a mild laxative effect, and pregnant women ate them to relax their lower body. Nīkau’s large, immature flower pods and green seeds make good eating before they open, in late summer to early autumn. Also edible are the tender centre shoots of young plants on the forest floor.
Tī – cabbage trees
Tī kōuka (cabbage tree) grows up to 12 metres tall. The leaves were used for weaving. Drinking the juice of the boiled leaves cured diarrhoea. The roots, tender new shoots and core of the trunk are rich in fructose and good to eat. New shoots were eaten raw or cooked. The usual method was to chop off the top, strip the bark and leave the tree to stand for a couple of days. The trunk was then felled and steamed for 24–48 hours, then the flesh separated from the fibre. Preparing the roots involved a similar process.
Generally speaking, the smaller the tree the better the taste – tī rauriki (dwarf cabbage trees) were particularly good. Several other species, including the multi-headed tī tōī (mountain cabbage tree), are also edible.
Neinei (Dracophyllum latifolium, grass tree) is found only in the upper North Island. Looking like a slender cabbage tree, its foliage was used for weaving.
The scrambling climber or ground plant kiekie was another important weaving plant. The white bracts around the flower and the protruding fruit were eaten.