Volume 40 1931 > Volume 40, No. 157 > Maori agriculture, by Elsdon Best, p 1-22
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Cultivated Food-Plants of the Maori and Native Methods of Agriculture.
(Continued from p. 380, vol. 39)

In the old pre-European times the labour of weeding plantations was very much lighter than it was after the introduced weeds, docks, sorrel, Scotch thistle, etc., over-ran the land. The weeds of olden days were easily kept in check. Early writers mention the well-weeded and generally neat aspect of native cultivation-grounds, the regular pathways and helpful stiles whereby to cross fences.

Care was taken to prevent the runners of the sweet potato taking root, which they readily do, hence they were lifted periodically; this was done lest the tuber-producing qualities of the plant be reduced.

The most destructive of pests among sweet potato plants is the awheto, awhato, hotete, or anuhe, a large caterpillar that often appeared in great numbers. The task of collecting and destroying these creatures sometimes demanded a considerable amount of time. The Ngati-Porou folk apply the terms ngurengure and tungoungou to certain insect pests, while the names of torongu and tupeke are heard in the Bay of Plenty district, and that of tupere at Waikato; probably some of these are names for the anuhe. The native rat did not seem to have worked much havoc among crops, but the introduced Norway rat was much more harmful. The natives sometimes kept fires burning in the field, in which fires were burned leaves of the kawakawa, a small tree (Macropiper excelsum). In the north the gum of the kauri pine was so burned. The smoke of these fires is said to have assisted in the destruction of the pests. Colenso tells us that tamed seagulls were occasionally kept for the purpose of destroying the caterpillars. Yet another method - 2 of getting rid of them was by means of a ceremony called ahi torongu in the Bay of Plenty. A fire was kindled and certain charms recited to stay or disperse the pests, but I have not ascertained what was burned in that fire.

Such were the tasks of the Maori agriculturist during Te waru kaihora a Hine-rau-wharangi, that is to say, during the season of prolific growth of vegetation, which growth is personified in the above-mentioned maid.


This is the hauhakenga, the verb being hauhake, to lift or take up a root crop. In the Bay of Plenty district the heliacal appearance of the star Whanui or Vega was taken as a sign that the time for lifting the kumara crop had arrived. Presumably this announcement would be checked by natural conditions, the state in which the crop actually was at the time. Watchful eyes scanned the eastern horizon just before dawn as the time drew nigh, and the first person to see the star would startle the hamlet with a ringing cry of: “Ko Whanui … e-e! Ko Whanui”—thus announcing the fact that Vega had reappeared. Then the people would come forth from their huts and greet the well-known star. This was the last of the important tasks of the Maori year, and when the crops were lifted and stored, then followed a period of rejoicing and feasting, of indulging in many forms of amusement. This was the period of Ruhanui. The next period of such diversions was at the commencement of the New Year, when the Pleiades first appeared in early morn.

The harvest-period was often alluded to as the Ngahuru, because it occurred in the tenth month of the Maori year. Ere the harvesters commenced their task certain ceremonial functions were carried out, but of these we have no clear account. A few tubers were taken up by a priestly expert and utilized as an offering to the gods. A few were cooked and eaten by the same expert as a part of the ceremonial act of removing the tapu from the crop. All such ceremonies were accompanied by the recital of ritual formulae. This rite may be said to have simply removed the excess of tapu that lay on the crop, it was not by any means wholly removed. The workers were under just such restrictions during the digging of the crop as they had been during its - 3 planting. They were compelled to work fasting, hence, if the task was not completed fairly early in the afternoon, then its completion was postponed until the morrow.

As the tubers were taken up they were allowed to dry, then placed in baskets and taken to certain spots, where they were emptied out so as to form heaps (koputu). These heaps were covered with haulm and some earth, and so left until the whole of the crop was lifted. Persons were told off to perform the different tasks, and all were under a series of restrictions as to actions and behaviour. The greatest care had to be taken during these operations lest some offence be given to the gods, in which case, we are told, disaster would follow, the harvested crop would not keep, but would decay in the storepits.

The tubers were sorted with regard to size, and all that showed any wound, even a slight abrasion, were set aside for immediate use. Unlike the common potato (Solanum) the kumara calls for much care and gentle handling, otherwise it will not keep. The sorting process is described by the word kopana in the East Coast district. The baskets used were large-sized ones, called tiraha, and were all about the same size. Each basket must be filled, and carried on the back to the storepit. If but partially filled, or if carried in any other way, some ill fortune would overtake the people or the crop. These baskets of tubers were counted by the binary system, as ngahuru pu, 20; hoko-rua pu, 40.

In some districts women were not allowed to take part in the work, in others they were, though no menstruating woman would be allowed to join in the work, lest the crops decay in the pits.

Great care was taken in storing the kumara crop; it was a task for experts. They could not be emptied in a heap as we serve potatoes, but had to be carefully handled, one by one, and carefully stacked, a process described by the word whakapipi. They were usually stored in the semi-subterranean form of storepit termed a rua tahuhu, from which occasionally a supply was taken to be placed in the rua kopiha, or small well-like pits situated near the cook-houses. The larger rua tahuhu were divided into spaces (tawaha) for different families, each of which had its separate stack (niho) of tubers. When the crop was stored, some of the tubers were cooked for the workmen in an oven - 4 called the umu tuapora. This was really a first-fruits ceremony, and a portion of the cooked food was “waved” to the gods by a priest. In all these ceremonial performances Rongo was ever viewed as the principal being to be placated.

Small undeveloped tubers of the sweet potato, practically useless as a food supply, are termed hekerau. Tubers missed by workmen when the crop is taken up are called houhunga.

The process of drying the tuber and producing the much-appreciated food termed kao was as follows: The tubers selected for the purpose were scraped with a shell, or a piece of split supplejack, and then placed on a platform and dried in the sun. They were then put into an umu and steamed for twelve to sixteen hours. The heated stones having been arranged at the bottom of the pit, they were then covered with a thick layer of leafy branchlets of the puriri (Vitex lucens) and of the pāpā (Geniostoma ligustrifolium); this in the Waiapu district. A layer of the tubers was then arranged on the leaves, then another layer of leaves was placed on that layer, and so on, until about four layers of tubers were arranged. The pit was first lined with a broad plaited band of long leaves, such band being styled a pae umu. A stout stick was then thrust down through the layers to the hot stones beneath, and this stick stood in a vertical position in the middle of the umu. This stick projected above the arranged tubers.

The next act was to cover all with plaited mats called taka, which were brought close up to the projecting stick in the centre. A good thick layer of earth was then shovelled over the mats to prevent the escape of steam. A quantity of water was then poured into the pit against the stick, down which it flowed to the hot stones at the bottom of the pit. The stick was then removed and the central part covered with the mats and earth. The steaming pit was now closed, to be opened on the following day. When so opened, the tubers were found to be in a soft condition, and they were now subjected to a second drying on a platform, which so dried and hardened them that they would keep well. This drying was sometimes effected by means of fire, the tubers being arranged on an elevated grid of green rods, under which was a mass of live embers. This second drying process renders the tubers quite dry and hard. When - 5 eaten, they might be exposed to fire in order to soften them, or be crumbled up and mixed with water so as to form a kind of gruel or thin, porridge-like substance.

THE YAM (Diascorea sp.)

This was the first of the old cultivated food-plants of the Maori to disappear, and its cultivation must ever have been a difficult matter, for evidently it was less hardy than the kumara. It could only be grown in the warmer northern parts of the North Island, whereas the sweet potato was grown to some extent as far south as Te Wai a te Rua-ti, near Temuka, in South Canterbury. The yam was known as uwhi and uwhikaho to the Maori; ufi, uhi, etc., are farspread names for it in Polynesia and Melanesia.

Captain Cook speaks of having seen yams in the Tolaga Bay district, but we have no record of them having been grown south of that. Cook wrote as follows of the cultivated food-plants of the Maori: “We could find but three esculent plants among those which are raised by cultivation—yams, sweet potatoes, and coccos [taro]. Of the yams and potatoes there are plantations consisting of many acres … Gourds are also cultivated by the natives of this place, the first of which furnishes them with vessels for various uses.” Forster, in his account of Cook's second voyage, says that the natives at a place south of Cape Kidnappers “were not possessed of coconuts and yams,” and that some of the latter were given to them. Sir Joseph Banks also mentions the yam as having been seen at various places in the northern parts of the North Island. East Coast native tradition asserts that the yam was brought hither from the isles of Polynesia by the crew of the vessel called Horouta, which reached these shores about 500 years ago.

Sir J. D. Hooker states that the species Diascorea alata was cultivated by the Maori at the time of his visit to New Zealand. Mr. Cheeseman has stated, in his paper on the food-plants of Polynesia, that the natives used to grow yams for sale to whalers, in the early part of the nineteenth century. This was at the Bay of Islands, Mangonui, and other far northern ports. It is possible that these represented a re-introduction from Polynesia or Fiji.

The para-tawhiti, or uhi-para (Marattia fraxinea) is said to have been occasionally grown by the Maori, its large, starchy rhizome being eaten by them. It does not grow - 6 in the southern parts of the North Island. It was known in the Bay of Plenty as taro-para.

There are many different species of yam, and the genus seems to have been indigenous in Asia, Africa, and America, possibly also in the isles of the Pacific.

The Waiapu natives state that there were two cultivated food-plants called uwhi, the uwhi parareka and the uwhi kumara. Presumably the former name was applied to the yam.

THE TARO (Colocasia antiquorum).

Candolle states, in his Origin of Cultivated Plants, that this plant is found growing in a wild state in India, Ceylon, Sumatra, and several islands of Indonesia, also that it is mentioned in a Chinese work of 100 B.C. In many places the taro was an irrigated crop, or grown in wet places, but we have no evidence to show that the Maori ever employed irrigation in his agricultural operations. The plant would doubtless have flourished in the drained parts of swamps that were, in olden days, a feature of the northern peninsula. I have encountered no actual proof that it was grown in the South Island, though it may have been possible to do so in the Nelson district. It was seen growing at Queen Charlotte Sound in 1839, but that may have been the introduced variety Sound in 1839, but that may have been the introduced variety which, it is said, is easier to grow than the old Maori species of pre-European days. I have seen the introduced variety growing at Otaki.

An old tradition collected and recorded by the Rev. T. G. Hammond is to the effect that the ancestors of the Maori obtained the taro from a land called Wairua-ngangana. This would be when such ancestors were dwelling in far distant lands. The plant was made known to them by a voyager named Maru, whereupon two vessels, under leaders named Rauru and Maihi, sailed to the land of Wairua-nga-ngana to procure the new food-plant. Possibly this Maru was the old-time Polynesian voyager of that name mentioned in Samoan tradition. A note in the late Mr. John White's MS. is to the effect that Maru saw the taro growing at Wairua, a lake at Mata-te-ra, and that he despatched one Maiho to procure it. The evidence points to a voyage to the Western Pacific. Mr. White also states that taro were placed in the hands of a corpse during the performance of the singular ceremony described at p. 388 of Tregear's Maori Race.

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The Maori propagated this plant by pinching off the small offset shoots and planting them, even as he propagated the ti para. Inasmuch as the taro is a perennial plant, there was no lifting of the crop at a given time as was the case with the sweet potato. It is worthy of note that the leaf stems (petioles), called wha taro, were also eaten by the Maori. Colenso tells us that the taro was employed in many ceremonial ways in olden times, though it is usually the sweet potato that is mentioned in that connection. Colenso also speaks of seeing taro plantations neatly kept, the plant being set in precise quincunx order, and the ground strewed with white sand. In some situations brush breakwinds were erected whereby to shelter the plants.

It was deemed highly necessary that the taro be planted out during certain phases of the moon only. Thus the Rakau-nui, Rakau-matohi and Orongo-nui days of the moon's age (i.e. the 17th, 18th, and 28th) were held to be specially favourable for the operation.

The taro was planted in small pits termed parua, of which there were two forms: the parua koau, being a deep hole, and the ipurangi, a shallower form. The pits were about two feet in diameter, and eight or ten inches in depth. These pits were hollowed out from a cubit to half a fathom apart, and the soil would be of a damp nature in some cases, or perhaps ordinary alluvium, but not the very dry, sandy, or light soil in which the sweet potato was often grown. As a rule, four plants were set in each parua, and, as the plants developed, more gravel was placed in the pit. Pinching off the inner, immature leaves is said to have had the effect of increasing the size of the edible root. Taro were sometimes placed in store pits, though not in any pit that contained sweet potatoes. In some districts the taro were stacked in heaps and covered with rushes or sedges to protect them. The Rev. T. G. Hammond tells us that he once saw a flowering specimen of taro at Hokianga.

The Ngati-Porou folk state that their forbears employed a line when forming the pits for taro plants, and that the young plants were placed in gravel in the pits.

We have no proof that any ceremony pertained to the planting, care, or lifting of the taro crop; so far as we know, such performances were practised only in connection with the kumara or sweet potato.

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The writer has a list of forty-one names of varieties of taro. Some of these, probably many of them, are duplicate names. The variety seen growing wild in streams in the far north is probably an introduced one. Cook stated that the natives of Tahiti had about twenty different names for taro. He also gives accounts of irrigated taro plantations at the Hawaiian Isles and New Caledonia. In the latter island irrigation seems to have been practised to a remarkable extent.

Waiapu natives state that, when the taro was planted in the small pits, it was covered with gravel. A damp soil was considered to be the best for this crop. Should such holes become filled with water, then the crop would flourish, under conditions that would be fatal to the kumara. When lifted, the roots were placed in a store-pit and covered with the plant called maikaika.

THE HUE OR GOURD (Lagenaria vulgaris).

We now come to the gourd-plant, one that furnished but a very unimportant food supply, inasmuch as its fruit could be eaten only in its immature state. The small, soft-rind fruit, termed kotawa by the Maori, was cooked and eaten, but the plant was really more useful to the Maori because it furnished him with the greater number of his domestic vessels.

Candolle states that the gourd-plant has been found growing wild in India and Abyssinia. He also says that: “Out of the ten known species of the genus Cucurbita, six are certainly wild in America.” The common Maori name for the plant is hue; other names, seldom heard, are wenewene and kowenewene. This plant is honoured with a personified form in the person of one Pū-tē-hue, who is said by the Awa folk of the Bay of Plenty to have been one of the offspring of Tane.

Seeds of the gourd were planted on the Turu and Rakaunui days of the moon's age (16th and 17th)—that is, during the full moon. The planters recited charms as they performed their task, and the following is a specimen of such effusions, as employed by the Matatua folk:—

“Pu-te-hue; kia tuputupu nunui koe
Ka porotaka i nga ringaringa.
Kia ahuahu nunui koe.

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Photo—Dominion Museum, Wellington., Four forms of kaheru or spades. Third from left has a detachable blade.
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Photo—Dominion Museum, Wellington., Three forms of kaheru (1, 2, and 3) and a cultivating ko (4).
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Photo—Dominion Museum, Wellington., Collection of ko or digging-sticks, some with teka, or tread, attached; some without.
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Photo—Dominion Museum, Wellington., Two stone teka (steps or treads of ko).
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Photo—Dominion Museum, Wellington., Illustrates mode of attaching the teka or ‘tread’ to a ko, and shewing ornamentation of same.
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Photo—Dominion Museum, Wellington., Two ketu, used for loosening soil, crop-lifting, etc. One side-view, one face-view.
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On the banks of the Nile, 3000 years ago. (From recently published Wonders of the Past, part 16, p. 785.)
Dominion Museum Photo., Young Maori woman using timo (grubber).
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A so-called kumara-god. At the time of working in the field the image was displayed there as a taumata atua (resting-place for the deity) and removed when the crop was lifted.
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This formula calls upon Pu-te-hue to flourish and grow apace, and to develop gourds as large as the space between a person's arms. This is an allusion to a peculiar act performed by the planter. He took a gourd seed in each hand, holding them between the thumb and forefinger, then raised his arms over his head until his finger tips met, but with the arms curved, not straight. Thus the charm was both spoken and acted. The planter stood facing the east as he went through this performance.

The following charm repeated by gourd-planters was collected by the late Mr. John White:—

He aha taku kakano?
He Turu taku kakano
He Rakau-nui taku kakano
Moe mai ra taku toko
Takoto mai ra koutou ko au tamariki
Hua kiwi, huahua moho
Te homai te ringia ki te kawekawe o Pu-te-hue.”

These simple formulae were supposed to have a beneficial effect in the way of causing a good crop to result. The opening lines—“What is my seed? My seed is Turu, my seed is Rakau-nui”—refer to the phases of the moon during which the seed was planted. The concluding lines contain a request that a plentiful supply of fruit be formed upon the runners of Pu-te-hue.

In the South Island, and in some parts of the North Island, the gourd-plant did not flourish, hence, at such places, wooden and seaweed (kelp) vessels were employed for domestic purposes. The old Maori variety of the gourd-plant must be almost extinct here now. A tradition preserved by Bay of Plenty natives is to the effect that the gourd was the first cultivated food-plant introduced into these isles.

Cook and Banks tell us that gourd-seeds were planted in small holes or hollows, “dishes” as Cook termed them. A Ngati-Porou native told me that they were planted in small heaps of earth. Possibly both methods were practised. The following remarks are from Bayly's Journal, the author of which was a member of the crew of the Adventure in - 10 1773. The extract is from his observations on what he saw at Tolaga Bay:—

“I saw plantations of something that resembled Pompion Plants. They were planted in the same order the Gardeners plant Coucumbers in holes. The plants were about two inches above ground and out in rough leaf.”

The fruit of this plant assumed different forms, and was produced in widely differing sizes. When needed for vessels it was allowed to mature, when it acquired a hard rind. When thoroughly dried, a hole was made in the upper part and the dried contents extracted. If only a small hole, as in the case of those destined to serve as water-vessels, gravel was placed inside and a vigorous shaking caused the contents to so crumble as to facilitate removal. Bowls were made by cutting a gourd in half. Large gourds were utilized as vessels in which food-products, birds and rats, were preserved in fat.

The writer has collected thirteen names for gourds, and some at least of these seem to have been applied to the different forms that the fruit assumed; possibly all were so used. The drying of a gourd after it was plucked was sometimes effected by placing it near a fire; in some cases they were buried in sand or gravel and allowed to remain there for some time.

The Maori practised “hand-fertilization” of the flowers of the gourd-plant, as our early settlers did ere, through introduction, bees became numerous, and this procedure was called whakaaiai.

The form of the gourd-fruit was sometimes influenced by means of ligatures. In some cases they were constricted in the middle, which caused the gourd to assume the form of a dumb-bell. These were called mahanga, and each half had a separate aperture made in it. Such double vessels were used on the east coast for preserving parson-birds (tui) in. At a feast they were placed before guests, being supported on forked sticks. Also they were sometimes decorated with bunches of feathers.

In order to hasten germination, natives were wont to subject seeds of the gourd to a process termed whakarau. This consisted of soaking the seeds in water, and then placing them in a mixture of earth and decayed wood contained in a basket. This basket was then buried in the - 11 warm earth near a fire, and left there for some time. The first pair of leaves put forth by the seed is termed rau kakano (seed-leaves). The next are rautara or patangaroa, and the next the putaihinu. When the runners (kawai) commence to spread, the plant has reached the hika stage of growth. The earth round the plant is now loosened, and wood-ashes mixed with it to serve as a manure. Gourds used as water-vessels were known as tahā wai, and by other names. Those used for preserving food-products in, as birds and rats, were called tahā huahua. Gourd-bowls were styled ipu, to be precise, ipu hue. Some of these bowls were tastefully decorated with incised curvilinear designs stained black. The Hawaiians, also the natives of Central America, decorated gourds in a similar manner.

Gourds with a curved stem-end are called hue kaupeka on the east coast, while hue kautu are those with a straight stem. In some cases seeds were germinated in a seed-bed (he mea parekereke) and then planted out in small mounds, in each of which four plants were put. Ends of runners were often pinched off, also some of the fruit was removed. When gourds were wanted as vessels, some herbage was placed under them during growth, or a layer of sand was spread under them. In some cases a symmetrical vessel was acquired by setting the gourd up in a vertical position during growth, it being kept in that position by means of pegs thrust into the earth.

When the natives of Queen Charlotte Sound obtained glass bottles from Cook's vessels, they styled them tahā, or calabashes.


It is known that two species of Cordyline were cultivated by the Maori, and these were C. terminalis and an un-named species, or possibly a variety, called by natives ti para, ti tawhiti, and ti kowhiti. The former is evidently not a native of these isles; it has never been found here in a wild state, and it was probably introduced by old-time Maori voyagers from Polynesia, possibly from Sunday Island of the Kermadec Group. Its Maori name is ti pore, ti being the native name for the genus. It was probably confined to the far north, and was near extinction when a few plants were found in old deserted native plantations.

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When we say that these species were cultivated by the Maori we mean that they were planted to serve as a food-supply, not that they received, or needed the care and attention bestowed upon the other food-yielding plants that we have been considering.

The large roots of Cordyline assume the form of a much elongated carrot. In young plants both the trunk and this taproot are soft, the inner parts being composed of a mass of fibres that contains a considerable amount of fecula, and this is the edible matter; it is a form of sago. The root of C. terminalis was the most highly-prized part. Both the trunk and the taproot of the ti para contain a considerable amount of the fecula, termed para by the Maori. With regard to C. australis, the most common species, the trunk seems to have been the part principally used, and only young plants provided a food-supply. The matured tree of this species has a much harder trunk than those of young plants. This species, as also C. terminalis and the ti para were propagated by means of planting the offsets or shoots that spring from the base of the trunk at the groundline.

Archdeacon Walsh states, in a paper on C. terminalis, that it was pounded with a wooden club ere being cooked in the steaming pit.

With regard to the ti para, I have never met a native who would admit that it grew wild. It was thought to be extinct in the Matatua district, but a plant was found on the site of a long-abandoned and bush-covered hill-cultivation at Ohaua-te-rangi, up the Whakatane River, about the year 1906. An offset from this plant in my garden grew well, and in three years, or a little more, the trunk was about three feet tall, when a number of shoots developed at the base of the trunk. As I was leaving the district, I cut the stem and got a native woman to cook the interior part of it. The fibrous matter contained a considerable amount of fecula of a sweetish taste, but it left a decidedly bitter after-taste in the mouth.

I could never obtain any information concerning the flower of the ti para. Colenso tells us that he had a number of well-grown plants, but that none of them flowered. The natives also told him that they had never known it to flower. A note in vol, 7 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society - 13 contains the statement that this plant never flowered, also that it was “tightly ligatured,” but for what purpose is not stated. Dr. Hector stated in 1896 that the stems “were tightly ligatured by the Maoris, and pegged down, when they developed a large amount of sweet starchy matter, which was used as food.” The Bay of Plenty natives used to bend the trunk down, when it was about four feet high, until the crown rested on the earth, where it took root. When these new roots had a good hold, then the stem was cut through at both ends and cooked for eating. In vol. 13 of the Trans. of the N.Z. Institute the late Professor Kirk speaks of the plant as being closely related to C. australis, but its habit of growth differs widely from that of australis, which develops under suitable conditions into a large, many-branched tree. The professor added that the flower was unknown. One writer speaks of a species of Cordyline that produces a blue flower, but I know not which plant he was referring to.

The Rev. T. G. Hammond tells us that a native tradition claims that the ti para was brought to New Zealand in the vessel named Aotea about 500 years ago. The Matatua natives assert that a species of Cordyline was brought higher in the vessel Nukutere, which came to land at Waiaua, near Opotiki. Seeds of the karaka tree are said to have been brought higher in the same vessel, which arrived about twenty-one generations ago.

Mr. Hammond states that, in the Taranaki district, the ti para (under its local name of ti tawhiti), was planted over large stones in order to prevent the roots penetrating too far into the ground. Colenso says that it never grows quite erect. Williams states that tahanui is the name of a variety of ti para with broad leaves, while mahonge is that of a variety with narrow leaves. Query, have these varieties been produced by continued cultivation? The leaves of the plant in my garden were about 1½ inches in width.

I have been told by natives that, when the taproot of the ti para was taken for food purposes, its lower part was left in the ground, and that it would grow again. A damp alluvium was held to be the best soil to plant it in. The outer part of the root was chipped off, the balance was - 14 then placed in water for a day, and then steamed in an umu or steam oven for twenty-four hours.

It may be of some interest to record the native names of the various species of Cordyline that have been collected:

Generic term for genus—Ti.
C. australis Ti kouka
  Ti kauka
  Ti whanake
C. indivisa Ti toi
  Ti kapu
  Ti mataku tai
C. Banksii Ti kapu
  Ti ngahere
  Ti torere
C. terminalis Ti pore
C. sp. Ti para
  Ti kowhiti
  Ti tawhiti
  Ti mahonge A variety
  Ti tahanui " "
C. pumilio Ti papa
  Ti koraha

Ti mataku tai (ocean-fearing ti) is an appropriate name for C. indivisa, inasmuch as it does not grow near salt water. The Rev. T. G. Hammond contributes two names unknown to me, viz., Ti puatea and Ti manu; the latter is probably C. australis.

C. pumilio is a very narrow-leaved species, and, like the ti para, does not develop into the large tree-like form of C. australis. Its name of mauku is in the Matatua district, applied to the fern Asplenium bulbiferum. Colenso tells us that it was cultivated by the Maori folk of the Waikato district, and wrote as follows: “Young seedlings were carefully selected and planted out, and in the following year the root was fit for use. The plant was then dug up, stacked in small piles, and dried in the sun; while drying, the fibrous roots were burned off, and when sufficiently dry the roots were scraped and baked slowly, requiring twelve to eighteen hours to cook them. These were chewed, or pounded and washed and squeezed, to extract the saccharine matter, which was eaten with their fern root to give it a relish.” The scraping process referred to was probably a chipping-off of the outside part of the root. The baking would be the steaming process in the hangi or steaming-pit. The Rev. W. R. Wade gives a similar account to the above, and it is pretty evident that one of these writers has copied the remarks of the other.

Mr. John White has stated that it took three years to produce a good root after the ti para was planted out, and this is more credible than Colenso's one year statement. - 15 Mr. White also states that very large steaming-pits, about eight feet in diameter, were made for cooking these roots, and each family of the village brought its supply of roots to be cooked in the common pit. Each root was enveloped in quantities of leaves of the hangehange (Geniostoma ligustrifolium) ere being placed in the pit, such leaves or branchlets being secured by ties. This was to facilitate taking the soft cooked root from the oven. Each family would recognize its own bundle by means of peculiar knots formed in the ties. Having been cooked, the roots were then dried and put away in the food-stores for future use. When used, these dried cooked roots were subjected to a pounding process, then placed in a vessel containing water, wherein the meal was separated from the fibres by means of rubbing and squeezing. Cooked taproots and trunks of other species were treated in a similar manner. Such occurrences as this communal method of cooking ti roots always served as a pretext for an enjoyable social meeting in Maoriland.

Certain observances pertained to this semi-ceremonial cooking. One restriction mentioned by Mr. White is to the effect that wood of the hōneysuckle tree might not be used in heating the oven. This wood, when decayed, is phos-phorescent; it gives a light like unto that of the glow-worm, which is the offspring of Tangaroa-piri-whare, the mischief-maker, a malignant being. Hence, if the wood were used, the next crop of ti would assuredly fail.

The names of ti kupenga for C. pumilio, ti rakau for C. australis, and ti parae for C. Banksii have been collected, but are not so well corroborated as the others given. All species provided some form of food. Of C. Banksii, the young, undeveloped leaves alone were eaten. The taproot, and the upper part of the trunk of C. indivisa occasionally afforded a meagre food-supply, as also its young leaves. Natives appear to have valued the different species as food producers in the following order:—

  • 1. C. terminalis
  • 2. Ti para
  • 3. C. pumilio
  • 4. C. australis
  • 5. C. indivisa
  • 6. C. Banksii
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The Matatua folk informed me that it was advantageous to cut off the head of plants that were to be used as food. This was done in September, and the trunk or taproot was taken for cooking in December or January. In some cases the roots or stems were left in the steaming-pits for forty-eight hours. The cooked product was often eaten as we eat sweets, a piece being masticated and the sweetish meal sucked from it, after which the fibrous matter was ejected from the mouth, as in eating fern-roots. Taylor tells us that early missionaries concocted some form of beer from the roots of Cordyline.

The ti para, C. terminalis, and C. pumilio did not grow in the South Island, and C. australis provided the para or food-product of those parts, although South Island natives applied the name of ti para to C. australis because it produces para, i.e., the meal or sago. They also apply the name of kauru to C. australis, or at least to its food-containing part. It was the stem of young plants that was so used by them, of plants four to six or eight feet in height.

Brunner tells us that the root was utilized on the west coast of the South Island, and he himself, during his arduous journeys in that region, often had to rely on this product and fern-root as a food-supply. His native companions extracted the meal from the cooked root and mixed it with water, then soaked cooked and pounded fern-root in it, the two being eaten together. This fern-root was the rhizome of Pteris aquilina, the common bracken of these isles.

Hone Tikao informs me that the Cordyline was not cultivated in the South Island. The product was prepared in November and February, plants about four feet in height being selected (? with a stem of four feet). The outer parts of the stems were chipped off, and these stems were cut into lengths of about two feet, that is, they were cut in half, and then steamed for twenty-four hours. It was considered highly necessary that the people should be circumspect in their behaviour during the process of cooking, thus the sexes would remain apart. Any infringement of these rules would result in the product being ill-cooked; it would be underdone, or possibly burned. Offenders would sometimes be severely punished. The cooked product was placed in store-houses and kept for winter use. The taproot and young undeveloped leaves also provided a supply of - 17 food. The gruel-like mixture of the meal and water, so much appreciated, is called waitau kauru in the South Island.

The taproot, says Tikao, was not steamed by his people, as the stems were; it was covered with hot ashes and so baked. It was then pounded in order to soften it, and the separated fibrous matter was spread out on a mat and sprinkled with the honey or nectar obtained from the blossoms of the Phormium plant. The sweetened meal was shaken out of the fibrous matter and placed in bowls. My informant subsequently states that the roots were sometimes steamed instead of being baked. Another South Island native states that, when the Cordyline was being procured, the first root taken up was not utilized as food, but was hung up as an offering to the gods.

The Whanganui natives would appear to have prized the ti as a food-supply—probably this would be the ti kowhiti, as they term the ti para. An old saying of that district is: “Ka tu te rua ti o te tangata, ka kiia he tangata.” A man who has a plentiful supply of this food in his storage-pit is a person of some consequence.


The name of a food-plant called korau appears in native narratives of former times. This is the name given to a variety of turnip introduced here by early European voyagers, but it is also the name of the mamaku, or edible tree-fern (Cyathea medullaris). Now elderly natives have maintained that the korau turnip was known and cultivated here in pre-European times, which seems impossible. The explanation may be that they have confused the two korau. East Coast natives quote a saying—Te kakano korau a Iranui—which they maintain applies to the turnip-seed, as a proof that it was known here in the time of Iranui, about 500 years ago. Even the late Ropata Wahawaha maintained that the korau (turnip) and puka (a variety of cabbage) were known and grown here centuries before the arrival of Europeans. The late Tuta Nihoniho stoutly asserted that a turnip-like plant called tahumairangi was brought hither from Polynesia twenty generations ago. Some apply the names of aotea and tairua to this plant. Other natives have stoutly maintained that certain varieties of potato (Solanum) were grown here in pre-European days. South Island - 18 natives make similar statements with regard to two wild turnip-like plants, called kawakawa and pora. One can only assume that these natives were in error, a perpetuated error. Such plants were first obtained from Cook's vessels.

THE KARAKA (Corynocarpus laevigatus).

This tree was sometimes planted by natives in and about their villages. It was a desirable shade-giving tree, and it also provided an appreciated food-supply, its berries having a large kernel that was cooked in considerable quantities in some districts.

Native tradition asserts that this tree was introduced into New Zealand about twenty generations ago. Five deep-sea vessels, the Aotea, Nukutere, Matahorua, Taki-tumu, and Tainui, are credited with having so brought it. Possibly it was so introduced, inasmuch as it is found on Sunday Island, 600 miles from Auckland, an isle at which some of the vessels coming to New Zealand are known to have touched. Moreover, as bushmen are well aware, the karaka is not a forest-tree here. As a rule it is seen only at or near places where natives are residing or have resided in the past. The ripe berries of this tree were steeped in water, deprived of their pulp, and the kernels were then subjected to a long steaming-process, after which they would keep for a considerable time. This treatment was absolutely necessary in order to destroy the poisonous properties of the kernels.


When certain European food-plants were introduced by early voyagers in these seas into New Zealand, the cultivation of such plants had quite an important effect on Maori life and activities. Thus the introduction of the potato furnished the natives dwelling in high-lying districts, such as the Urewera tribal lands, as also those in the far south, with a food-producing plant that could be grown to great advantage by them, and which gave them a new and highly important food-supply. Those dwelling in warmer districts found in the potato a food-plant that produced a bountiful crop and was very much easier to cultivate than the kumara or sweet potato; it was also much easier to keep when the crop was lifted. In spite of the additional labour - 19 demanded in fencing in cultivations, caused by the introduction of the pig, yet the acquisition of the potato was looked upon as a great boon. Whether it was really so, or not, is quite another question. It was the coming of the potato that struck fern-root off the daily bill of fare of the Maori.

The potato did much to change the daily life of the Maori; in many districts it did away with the almost daily task of seeking some form of food-supply. The tasks of the fowler and fisherman, of the collector of wild vegetable products, became light, and, indeed, were gradually given up.

We cannot decide as to whom the Maori was first indebted for the potato, for it seems probable that in some cases such gifts received from early voyagers were not attended to and retained. This might be owing to carelessness or ignorance. It has been stated that De Surville introduced the potato in the far north, but no mention is made of such an occurrence in Monneron's and L'Horne's journals of the voyage, though both state that pigs, fowls, wheat, peas, and rice were given to the natives. This was in 1769. In 1772 Marion du Fresne planted potatoes in the north, and Roux's Journal shows us that wheat, maize, potatoes, and various kinds of nuts were planted, and grew well. The maize and wheat were not, according to later evidence, retained and utilized. Crozet mentions having planted, on Motuaro isle at the Bay of Islands, “all sorts of vegetables, stones and the pips of our fruits, wheat, millet, maize, and, in fact, every variety of grain which I had brought from the Cape of Good Hope; everything succeeded admirably.”

No mention seems to be made concerning potatoes in the account of Cook's first voyage. During his second voyage he planted, at Queen Charlotte Sound, potatoes, beans, peas, and several kinds of corn. The natives were apparently by no means eager to avail themselves of new food-plants concerning which they knew nought. Crozet tells us of endeavours made to interest them in the plants introduced at the Bay of Islands, but remarks in disgust—“They had no more mind for this than brutes.”

The potatoes mentioned by Dr. Savage as having been procured in the North in 1805 were, judging from his remarks, probably the introduced Solanum. This food-plant was assuredly introduced by early voyagers, yet some natives - 20 maintain that they possessed this potato prior to the arrival of Europeans. From one point of view this might be so in some cases. For example, tribes that had not been brought into contact with Europeans might well have received the tuber from other tribes ere they ever beheld the white-skinned adventurers who brought it to these isles. The lapse of time has evidently confused the natives, and so they speak of pre-European potatoes and turnips.

In the far north the natives are said to have grown two crops of potatoes in the year not very long after they had acquired it. In certain districts further south, the Maori employed a peculiar method in order to obtain a very early crop of potatoes. This method is termed whakapara by the Tuhoe natives, and whakaota at Taupo. The seed tubers are planted about June in scrub-land or light bush. The bush is then felled and burned off in the spring, the fire destroying the haulm that has grown up through it. The growth has been protected from frost by the brush and branches, and, after the burning, the potato-growth springs up again.

Prior to the fighting of the 'sixties a considerable amount of wheat was grown by the natives. Some of this furnished them with yet another food-supply, and there were a goodly number of grist-mills in native districts. Quantities of wheat were also sold to European traders. The Waiapu natives informed me that they used to prepare the soil after the manner Maori for this wheat crop. Although using European spades, they worked in companies at the digging, timing their actions by means of chanted songs, as in digging for the kumara planting. They performed the task of threshing the wheat in a similar rhythmical manner, using the plant supplejack as a flail.

It is apparent that all the truly-cultivated esculent plants of the Maori are exotics, brought hither by the Maori himself from the far off isles of Polynesia. I say truly-cultivated because the Cordyline and karaka were merely planted, no further care being given them. The aute or paper-mulberry was also, as noted, brought hither from Polynesia, and grown to a small extent in the northern parts of the North Island, while the native flax (so called) Phormium tenax, was planted near villages on account of its usefulness. Superior varieties of this plant received - 21 some attention, as in removing dead leaves, etc., in order that fine leaves might be produced, for from these was obtained the fibre used in the manufacture of the finer garments of the Maori.

This discourse on Maori agriculture must now be concluded. The Polynesian folk have apparently been agriculturists for untold centuries. They brought from hidden lands beyond far horizons the genius and instincts of soil-tilling man. They carried with them on their deep-ocean voyages their economic plants and often their few domestic animals. They cultivated such plants wherever they settled if it was possible to do so, in some cases at the expense of much toil and trouble, as in certain parts of New Zealand. Their agricultural tools were primitive in the extreme, but the system of universal service enabled them to perform the necessary tasks with despatch, and the racial genius for detail resulted in extreme regularity and neatness in their cultivation-grounds.

The most interesting aspect of Maori agriculture is connected with the many parallels noted with practices, beliefs, superstitions, and ritual of Indonesia and South-east Asia, and the fact that the Maori has preserved an Asiatic name for rice. The Maori recognized a close connection between the Pleiades and food-supplies, as did the folk of many far-spread lands. In common with the natives of Sarawak, he placed great reliance on human skulls as a fertilizing agent, believing that they caused a bountiful crop to be the result of his labours.

When spring came it was then that Mahuru (personified form of Spring) sent the cuckoo hither to call the Maori folk to the annual task of the husbandman. When the 'wharauroa, the far-travelled one, was heard crying “Koia! Koia! Koia!” the Maori seized his ko and, in company with all members of his family group, went forth to obey the behest of Mahuru, before Hine-raumati, the Summer Maid, appeared. Ere long the ground was cleaned and the mara was koia, or planted. When Whanui, the low-hung star of Vega, was seen above the horizon for the first time, ere dawn appeared, the Maori knew that it was time to prepare his store-pits and lift his crops. When, after those crops were stored, he saw Matariki, the Pleiades, appear in like manner, he knew that a new year had arrived.

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In far-off lands that lie beyond the curve of the earth, the ancestors of the Maori dwelt in the remote past. In the realm of Irihia that gives on the gleaming sunset they cultivated the “small seed” termed ari and vari, possibly the rice of western nomenclature. In Rongo they saw the moon-god of agriculture of Babylonia, and in Pani a popular Ceres who gave birth to the prized food-product in water, even as it germinates in these days, but who was apparently transferred to the kumara in later times. The ancient symbols of fertility, the phallus and the crescent moon, were carried far across wide seas and are yet in evidence in this land of Aotearoa. At Easter Island a crescent-shaped stone symbolized fertility, even as did the crescent-symbol at the head of the ko, the Maori digging-tool—a symbol that betrays its origin in its two names—whakamarama and whakaaurei. For here we have the ancient symbol of fertility of far Asia, the symbol that surmounted the phallus that represented Ira and Indra, the phallic eel of India and the phallic serpent known of Mother Eve. The myth of Eve and the phallic serpent, the snake in the garden, reappears in the Maori myth of Tuna and Hina. The Maori at your door is linked up with ancient symbols and ancient peoples of far-off lands and far-off times. Now, hemmed in at his last far-flung outpost at the bounds of the earth, he looks forth across the great ocean that he conquered, and, conservative and disdainful as of yore, calmly awaits the fiat of the gods.