Māori revered the forest for its beauty, spiritual presence, and bountiful supply of food, medicines, and weaving and building materials.
The forest is called by many names – ngahere, ngāherehere, nehenehe, ngahengahe, wao, waonui and waoku. In Taranaki, motu or motu rākau refer to a stand of trees or patch of bush.
Tāne created the forests when he separated his parents, Ranginui (the sky father) and Papatūānuku (the earth mother), and let light into the world. As Tāne Mahuta he is god of the forest, presiding over its plants and birds. As Tānenui-a-rangi he is creator of the first human.
Māori believed that the life principle or mauri of a forest could be concentrated into objects such as stones and thereby protected and fostered. Stones were chosen for their unusual shape or appearance, and buried in significant places such as at the foot of well-known, bird-frequented trees. Lizards such as the moko kākāriki (common green gecko) and moko tāpiri (Pacific gecko) were often released to guard the mauri. Māori believed these guardians were immortal.
However, forces could conspire to deplete the mauri itself, and tohunga (priests) from other tribes could recite incantations to negate or steal it. Tohunga were called on to protect or revitalise the mauri.
Respect for Tāne’s forest was shown by performing certain tikanga (customs). Their importance is reflected in the story of Rātā.
Rātā went into the forest, cut down a tree, and began to carve it into a canoe. When he returned the next day to continue his task, the tree was miraculously standing in its original position. He felled it again and set to work, but the same thing happened the following day, and the next. Finally, Rātā hid behind a bush and saw the hakuturi (forest guardians in the form of birds, insects and other life) replanting the tree. When he confronted them, they told him he had failed to perform the appropriate rites. He then did so, and the hakuturi released the tree.
The early Polynesian settlers hunted the moa to extinction and burned large tracts of forest. Over a period of about 500 years, indigenous forest cover was reduced from about 80% to 50%. In the 200 years since European settlement, it has dwindled to 24.8%. But Māori knowledge of forest plants, foods, medicines, building materials and other resources shows a deep understanding of the natural world.
The great trees of Tāne, god of the forest, were called Ngā Tokotoko-o-te-rangi (the posts that hold the heavens aloft) because they held Ranginui (the sky father) above Papatūānuku (the earth mother).
Tōtara had pride of place among the tall trees. Found throughout New Zealand and growing up to 40 metres high, their strong, straight trunks were ideal for building waka taua (war canoes). The bark was used to make roofs, splints for broken limbs, and food and water containers called pātua or papa tōtara.
The saying ‘kua hinga te tōtara’ (a tōtara has fallen) described the death of an important person or chief.
Kauri reaches 30–60 metres tall, has a massive girth, and can live as long as 2,000 years. Tāne Mahuta in Waipoua Forest is the largest living specimen. Kauri grows naturally in the north of the North Island, its southern limit crossing the country from Raglan harbour, through Hamilton to just south of Tauranga. The timber was ideal for canoe hulls. The replica double-hulled canoe Te Aurere, made by Hekenukumai Busby of Muriwhenua, has kauri hulls.
Kauri gum was called kāpia. Older gum was used as an accelerant for fires and a fuel for torches. Gum from kauri, tarata and kōhūhū was chewed. The stalk of the pūhā plant was cut to release juice. This hardened and was rolled into a ball, to be chewed like gum.
Beech trees were known as tawhai or tawai. They grew mainly on the Volcanic Plateau and along the mountain chains of the North and South islands. Three varieties were recognised: tawhai (silver beech), tawhairauriki (black beech and mountain beech) and tawhairaunui (red beech and hard beech).
Kiore (Pacific rats) lived in beech forest and became abundant when beech seeds were plentiful. A name for kiore in Whanganui was kiore tawai (beech rat). Kiore were a favourite food of Māori.
The demigod Māui, wanting to discover the secret of fire, visited the goddess Mahuika. She gave him one of her fingernails, which contained the fire. To trick her, Māui deliberately put out the flame and returned for another fingernail. He repeated this until Mahuika, realising she had been duped, cast the last nail down and set the underworld alight. Fire became implanted in kaikōmako, rimu and tōtara. Since then, fire has been made by rubbing sticks from these trees in grooves of māhoe or patatē wood.
Rimu had a number of uses. The red cap that holds the seed is edible. The inner bark and leaves were pulped and applied to burns and other wounds. The resinous heartwood was split into slivers and tied in bundles for torches.
New Zealand’s tallest tree, kahikatea, grows up to 60 metres. It bears edible berries, known as koroī.
Mataī and miro grow to 25 metres high. Miro produce fruit all year round, and were a favourite of kūkupa or kererū (New Zealand pigeons) and kākā (brown parrots) in autumn and winter. Snares were set to catch the birds.
Mānuka and kānuka were versatile. Their bark provided a waterproof layer for roofs. Poles were used as battens and rafters, and for spears or paddle shafts. The leaves were used to scent hair oil, and flexible saplings and new branches were made into snares and traps.
There are several varieties of whekī and ponga ferns, growing 5–20 metres high. Whekī (rough tree fern) has peg-like extensions marking where old fronds have fallen off, and is found throughout New Zealand. Whekī-ponga (brown tree fern) is distinguishable by its large skirt of old brown fronds, and grows south of Auckland. Both provided building materials – the trunks were used for walls, and the fronds for roofs.
Ponga (silver fern) grows in the North Island and the east and north of the South Island. Its fronds have a distinctive silver underside. Māori laid them silver-side up as track markers – in the dark they were lit up by burning torches. The leaves of rangiora were used in the same way.
Mamaku tree ferns grow in damp gullies throughout New Zealand. Reaching 20 metres in height, they have oval-shaped frond scars on the trunk. The white pith of the trunk and the koru (new shoots) are edible, although slimy when first cut. Māori stripped the trunk’s outer layers so the slime could dry or drain away. The plant was then cut down and cooked whole. Alternatively, koru (new shoots) were hung to dry. Baking was the preferred way to cook mamaku, to separate the stringy fibres from the flesh. Although the taste is bland, the nutritional value is high.
Kātote (soft tree fern) grows throughout New Zealand and is half the size of mamaku. It was a favourite food of South Island tribes.
Oral traditions say that white-flowered puawānanga (clematis) is the child of Puanga (Rigel, the top star in Orion) and Rehua (Antares in Scorpio). Puanga’s rising in June marks the beginning of winter, and the rising of Rehua in December signals summer – puawānanga blooms in the months between them. Garlands were made from the flowers.
When the bright yellow flowers of kōwhai bloom, in late winter and early spring, it is time to plant kūmara (sweet potato). Pigment for yellow dye was extracted from the flowers, and the flexible branches were good for making houses and bird snares.
Pōhutukawa reaches 20 metres high, and grew wild north of Kāwhia, Lake Taupō and Ōpōtiki. Its distinctive red flowers signalled the arrival of summer. The boiled juice of the inner bark could cure diarrhoea, and the nectar was good for sore throats. This was a coastal tree, and lower branches which curved down, but had not yet penetrated the ground to become roots, were ideal for one-piece fish hooks.
Māori were cautious of two thorny plants in the bush. Ongaonga or tree nettle has 6-millimetre-long stinging hairs that can kill small animals such as rats and cats. Dogs, horses and cattle can also die, and in 1961 a tramper died after pushing through a thicket of it. Tātaramoa or bush lawyer has hooked thorns that snag clothing and rip or prick the skin. Its fruit can be eaten, and the vine yields water when cut.
The main inland relation of the pōhutukawa, the northern rātā, is found north of Kaikōura and grows up to 25 metres tall. It usually begins life as a vine that grows around host trees, and finally engulfs them completely. The bark was used to help heal wounds and burns, and cure diseases.
Some species of rātā never become trees, but grow into a mass of vines. These were cut and drained of drinking water.
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 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.
Hīnau bark was used to make pātua (food containers) and black tattooing pigment. Its fruit was an important food for Māori, who pounded or soaked it to remove the flesh from the stones, dried it, then baked it into large cakes.
Cakes were also made from the pungapunga (pollen) of raupō (bulrush). The rhizome of this plant provided a starchy food.
Māori ate the yellow fruit of poroporo. The tree produces fruit year-round, but unripe fruit is poisonous – it is edible only when the skin has split.
The kernels of tawa and taraire, which mature in late summer to early autumn, were a staple of forest tribes north of Lake Taupō. The kernels were boiled, steamed, or roasted in embers. When dried they kept for several months. Tawa was also used to make taoroa (long bird spears) and as fuel to light fires.
Growing from 5 to 15 metres tall, and with thick, glossy green leaves, karaka was probably the most important source of kernels. These had to be carefully prepared because in their raw state they are poisonous. They were boiled or steamed for up to 12 hours, then immersed in running stream water for one or two weeks. The kernels could then be stored for several months. Re-cooking softened them for eating. The raw flesh of the bright orange fruit is also edible, and has a strong apricot flavour. Māori planted groves of karaka trees near the bays and harbours they seasonally visited.
Tutu needed special preparation to neutralise its deadly toxicity. Every part of the plant is poisonous except for the petals (which look like long strings of small, dark fruit). To extract the juice, Māori crushed and strained the petals through toetoe and other fibrous plants. It was used to sweeten and flavour other foods such as aruhe (fern root) and dishes made from mamaku and karaka.
North Island traditions say that when the forests were more plentiful, large flocks of kūkupa (New Zealand pigeons) travelled from forest to forest to eat the fruit as it ripened. In spring and early summer they ate miro, pūriri and taraire in Northland. By March (early autumn) they had moved south to Pirongia and Te Aroha in the Kaimai Ranges; in May and June they were at Rangitoto and Ranginui near Te Kūiti; and in July and August (late winter) they feasted at Tītīraupenga, Pureora and Ketemaringi before returning north.
Tītoki grows up to 20 metres tall. Its red berries were used in scented sachets, or crushed, washed, then pressed to make hair oil. The oil was stored in tahā hinu (small gourd vessels) and perfumed with leaves of heketara, raukawa, mānuka or the moss kōpuru. Pia and ware (gums) extracted from tarata and taramea were also added.
The Ngāti Porou tribe extracted oil from the seeds of parapara by steaming, pounding and pressing them.
Aruhe is the root of rārahu or rauaruhe (bracken fern), a tough ground fern with reddish-brown stems, which grows up to 2 metres tall.
Fern root was the most important wild vegetable. Several traditions explain its origin:
Bracken fern flourishes in open woodlands where felled or burnt forest is regenerating. Māori harvested the roots and shoots throughout the year, although late spring to early summer was the optimum time. The best plants were about three years old and had rhizomes 2–3 centimetres in diameter. These were dried, steeped in water, roasted, boiled or steamed, and then pounded to separate the edible flesh from the fibres. The resulting paste was formed into large blocks or cakes, and sweetened with tutu juice or wai kōrari (harakeke nectar).
The best-known Māori ‘green’ is pūhā. However, a number of others were also eaten, including pōhue, raupeti (black nightshade) and the young leaves of puahou (five-finger).
Māori ate other ground ferns, including the young fronds or shoots of kōwaowao (hound’s tongue fern), rereti, mouku (hen and chickens fern) and huruhuru whenua (shining spleenwort). They ate the koru or fiddleheads of kiokio and pikopiko (common shield fern).
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Crowe, Andrew. Which native tree?: a simple guide to the identification of New Zealand native trees. Auckland: Penguin, 1999.
Crowe, Andrew. Which native fern?: a simple guide to the identification of New Zealand native ferns. Auckland: Viking, 2001.
Crowe, Andrew. Which native forest plant?: a simple guide to the identification of New Zealand native forest shrubs, climbers and flowers. Auckland: Viking, 1994.
Riley, Murdoch. Māori healing and herbal: New Zealand ethnobotanical sourcebook. Paraparaumu: Viking Sevenseas NZ, 1994.
Salmond, John T. New Zealand native trees. Auckland: Reed, 1994.