A new book looking at native plants of the South Island discusses their traditional Māori uses. The stories describe how Māori and Europeans grew and processed the plants, and uncovers some surprising uses.
According to Rob Tipa, author of Treasures of Tāne: Plants of Ngāi Tahu, scientists are in many cases just now discovering the active ingredients in many traditional Māori rōngoa that have been used to successfully treat illnesses for centuries. His new book explores these Māori medicinal successes, as well as the multitude of foods, fibres and building materials that native plants provided. Here he offers us book extracts about a couple of his favourites.
Tarata – for form, foliage and fragrance
Common name: Lemonwood
Botanical name: Pittosporium Eugenioides
Size: up to 12m
Tarata is one of the stunning specimens of our native bush for at least three good reasons – its form, its foliage and its fragrance.
This hardy evergreen shrub or tree is the largest of the Pittosporum family in New Zealand. It is found throughout the country: in coastal bush at sea level, along stream banks, in forest clearings and margins and in regenerating cut-over forest up to 600 metres in altitude.
In its juvenile form, tarata is much admired. Gardeners and landscapers favour it for its neat, compact pyramidal shape, common to many of the Pittosporum family. When planted in full sun, it will branch out from ground level. It is often used as a hedging plant because of its hardiness and fast growth.
Given space, this shapely shrub will grow to its full potential: it can become a beautiful specimen tree of up to 12 metres in height, with a rounded crown and a trunk of up to 60 centimetres in diameter.
When crushed, its leaves exude a strong scent of lemon, which explains its common name, lemonwood. The leaves, 2–4 centimetres wide and 10–15 centimetres long, range in colour from a soft yellow/green hue to a deep green, depending on the site. Leaves have a distinctive lemon-yellow midrib and wavy margins. The stems are a deep reddish brown, yet the trunks are often a pale whitish colour.
Tarata flowers from October through to December in large clusters of yellow blooms that ripen into green then black fruit capsules within twelve to fourteen months.
Māori valued the sweet fragrance of tarata and used the flowers, leaves and gum in many perfume recipes. Sometimes the leaves and flowers of tarata were bruised and mixed with weka, tūī, kererū (pigeon) or kiore (rat) oil to create a scented perfume. However, in Traditional Lifeways of the Southern Maori, Herries Beattie explained that the gum of tarata was sometimes used without mixing it with oil:
The scents were used on the body and the fine ones in the hair. They were sometimes mixed with kokowai (red ochre) or maukoroa (red paint). A paua shell was sometimes used to store the scent, the holes blocked and filled with scented fat. It was put in a whitau bag (kopaki) and carried on the body suspended from the neck.
The method for harvesting the concentrated gum (pia tarata) was to cut a deep vertical groove in the trunk and, the next day, collect the resinous sap that oozed from the cut. The gum could be placed in tiny taha (small pieces of wood hollowed out) and worn suspended on a cord around the neck to emit a pleasant scent to the wearer. It was also mixed with various oils and applied to the body as a scent.
Elsdon Best wrote that bird skins or feathers that had been scented with pia tarata were worn around the neck (these were called pona tarata). He also recorded that pia tarata was smeared on the skin of a body after death, to close the pores and prevent decay.
Custom suggests that tarata leaves or gum could be used by a man to charm a woman who had spurned his initial advances; together with an appropriate karakia (incantation), it acted as a stimulant aphrodisiac.
In Māori Healing and Herbal, Murdoch Riley explains how a tarata branch was sometimes used by a tohunga (expert) to remove the tapu (restrictions) from pupils at a wharekura (training school), or placed in the path of an approaching war party as a warning to attackers.
Tarata gum was used to seize the lashings on fishing lines, as a glue, and as an ingredient in the black paint used in ancient cave drawings found in South Canterbury and Otago, Riley writes.
Riley also records the case of an early European farmer who was suffering from acute rheumatism of the joints. He accepted the offer of a native remedy: a hot bath in a decoction of the bark and leaves of the tarata. Although this farmer had been almost crippled, after this treatment he was able to walk without the aid of sticks. Further treatment improved his condition.
Riley also notes that, in 1869, explorer William Colenso described his observation of resin from tarata being mixed with the gum of pūwhā (sow thistle) and formed into a ball to be chewed as a breath freshener.
Tikumu in flower – a rare sight to behold
Common name: Mountain Daisy
Botanical name: Celmisia Spectabilis, Celmesia Semicordata
Size: up to 1m
Mountain daisies are among the most common plants found in the high country of Aotearoa, yet an alpine meadow with large mountain daisies in full flower is a sight capable of stopping you in your tracks.
Somehow these spectacular specimens look totally out of place in such a harsh, unforgiving environment. Mountain daisies belong to the Celmisia genus, of which there are fifty-eight different species. Most of these are found only in New Zealand, and all are well adapted to a diverse range of conditions.
Gardeners say the plants do well under cultivation in the soft, cooler climate of the south but struggle to survive the hot, wet conditions of Auckland. Apart from a few species that grow at sea level, the best place to see these plants is in their natural habitat – above the snow line.
No doubt our tūpuna appreciated the beauty of the large-leafed mountain daisies they knew as tikumu, but for them, the plants also had a very practical use – for clothing to stay warm and dry and as the base material of a protective shield against thorns or the weapons of their enemies.
Tikumu is famous among Ngāi Tahu for its snow-white fibre, highly valued by weavers for its use in finely woven waterproof items, particularly raincoats, cloaks, hats and mats.
Tikumu was still being woven into garments as late as the 1920s, Ngāi Tahu anthropologist Professor Atholl Anderson writes in The Welcome of Strangers.
In the North Island, the name tikumu refers to Celmisia spectabilis, according to Manaaki Whenua (Landcare Research). In the South Island, it usually refers to Celmisia semicordata, but is used for Celmisia spectabilis as well.
Celmisia spectabilis, also known as the cotton daisy, has very thick leathery leaves 10–15 centimetres long with a smooth, shiny upper surface. The lower surface is covered in a soft mat of buff or white hairs. The plant grows naturally from Mount Hikurangi in the eastern North Island to around North Otago in the south.
Celmisia semicordata is the largest of our mountain daisies, and is found throughout Te Waipounamu. It has silver through to green leaves up to 60 centimetres long and flower heads 5–12 centimetres across.
Other large mountain daisies are often confused for tikumu, but experts say they generally have a narrower range than that of the two main species mentioned above.
The leaves of both Celmisia spectabilis and Celmisia semicordata are stiff and leathery, which makes the plants relatively fire tolerant and able to withstand grazing by livestock in the high country.
The dense mat of down that covers the underside of tikumu leaves helps the plant prevent water loss from evaporation in a hard alpine climate. Māori peeled this down from the underside of the leaves and wove it into a whītauwhītau (flax fibre) underlay of their clothing, to make it waterproof and to insulate them against the cold. Ethnographer Herries Beattie recorded the Ngāi Tahu technique of making rainproof cloaks (pōkeka tikumu) from harakeke fibre and tikumu leaves. The whītauwhītau was woven as it was in ordinary mats, and rows of large tikumu leaves were attached with aho (threads) of fine whītauwhītau.
The Hocken Library in Dunedin holds a historic photo of Southern Māori Member of Parliament Hori Kerei Taiaroa in full ceremonial dress, wearing a cloak decorated with tikumu. These fine cloaks were highly prized by chiefs in the north.
According to one of Beattie’s Ngāi Tahu contacts, the white fluffy down of tikumu was known as ‘wharawhara’. It was also used by women to decorate their hair or as an adornment around their ears.
The leathery green leaves of tikumu were dried and woven into rough leggings known as taupā and tahau-taupā (shin protectors) to shield the wearer’s legs from thorns. The same raw material was used to make pohotaupā, a chest protector worn during battle.
Some of Beattie’s sources suggested that the tikumu leaf lasted better once the down was removed. Beattie also recorded that widows wore a wahine pōtae (widow’s cap) made of tikumu, tī or toi. This was worn a long time after the death of their husbands.
European settlers were equally resourceful in their use of mountain daisies. In early times in Otago, doctors used the down fibre as a substitute for fine cotton lint to dress wounds.
In Māori Healing and Herbal, Murdoch Riley says that Otago settlers used the leaves of some mountain daisy species to flavor tobacco, or as a substitute for it. They also used it for the relief of asthma.
Riley also records that the sweet-smelling leaves of tikumu were collected and blended in scented oil, mixed with mokimoki (an aromatic fern).
Legend has it that high-country shepherds used to peel the cotton down off the underside of tikumu leaves and use a glass lens to ignite it to light their pipes in an emergency. Obviously, desperate situations called for desperate measures.
Finding large mountain daisies in flower is a bit like the quest for the Holy Grail. You need to be in the right place, above the snow line, at the right time of year. The sight of even a few plants in flower is enough to stop you in your tracks; it makes the walk to find them well worth the effort.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.