W hat I believe to be genuine and authentic the collected publications of William Colenso



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2. Of their Cultivated Food Plants.


1. The first in every respect and degree was the kumara. This plant is an annual of tender growth, and was one of their vegetable main-stays. Their use of this plant, as I take it, is from pre-historical times; as their many legends about it evidently show, which I purpose hereafter to lay before you in a future paper. In suitable seasons and soils its yield was very plentiful. It had, however, one potent enemy of the insect tribe, in the form of a large larva of one of our largest moths.515 This larva was named anuhe, awhato, hawato, and hotete, and as it rapidly devoured the leaves of the young kumara, it was quite abhorred by the Maoris, who [12] always believed that they were rained down upon their plants. Sometimes their numbers were almost incredible, as some of us have also seen in the abundance of the more common caterpillar pests in certain seasons. I myself have often marvelled at them in their number, and where they could possibly have come from; baskets full being carefully gathered from the plants, and carried off and burnt. This job of gathering them, though necessary, was always greatly disliked.516 Long before the roots, or tubes, of the kumara were of full size, they were regularly laid under contribution; each plant was visited by old women, with their little sharp-pointed spades or dibbles, who were quite up to their work, and a few of the largest young tubers selected and taken away, and the earth around the plant loosened, when it was again “hilled” up;—an operation not unlike that of our potato hoeing, only much more carefully performed, as at the same time they took away every withered leaf and upper outlying rootlet, and weak sprout. Those young tubers were carefully scraped, and half-dried on clean mattings in the sun—being turned every day and carefully covered from the dew, and when dry either eaten or put away in baskets as a kind of sweetish confection or preserved tuber,517 greatly esteemed by them, either raw, or soaked and mashed up with a little warm water, and called kao.

At the general digging of the crop in the late autumn (called by the Maoris the hauhakenga), but always before the first frost, great care was taken in the taking up of the roots, when they were carefully sorted according to size and variety (if of two or more varieties in the one plantation), all bruised, broken, or slightly injured ones being put on one side for early use; then they were gathered up into large flax baskets, always newly made, and in due time stowed away in the proper store; taking great care of doing so only on a perfectly dry sun-shiny day, as they had to guard against mouldiness of every kind, which was destructive and dreaded.

It is impossible to estimate, even approximately, the immense quantity of this root which was annually raised by the old Maoris; especially before [13] they took to the cultivation of the introduced potato. At their large and noted tribal feasts,518 (hakari, at the north, kaihaukai, at the south,) enormous quantities were used, as well as at their commoner feasts held on account of births, betrothals, marriages, deaths, etc.; on such great occasions the quantity was often increased through profuse ostentation, for which, while the chief and the tribe gained a great name, they all (especially the women and children) subsequently suffered severely.

But, in my opinion, one of the most remarkable things pertaining to this useful root, or tuber, has yet to be noticed; namely, its many marked varieties, which were also old and permanent. I have, I think, known more than thirty varieties; and I have lists from the north and the south of several others; and have also heard of others, possibly ten more; while some old sorts were known to have been lost.519 In this respect the tubers differed just as potatoes do with us. Some were red-skinned, some purple, and others white; some were rough-skinned, and others smooth; some had red flesh, or were pink, or dark purple throughout, others were white; some were even and cylindrical, others were deeply grooved or regularly channelled; some were short and thick with obtuse ends, others were long and tapering with pointed ends; and I never once noticed that there was any mixture (as it were) of the several varieties; all came true to sorts planted, as in the potato with us; their only sign of degeneration through soil or drought was in the size. Now all those several varieties were of old, [14] and only handed down by the strict preserving of the seed (or tuber); and the question with me has ever been, How were they first derived? From the Maoris themselves I never could learn anything satisfactory respecting them,—save that they had had them of old from their forefathers. (Of course, for the time, I set aside their legends concerning them).

I have carefully enquired if the old Maoris had ever known the kumara to flower, but they all said, “No; never heard of such a thing.” And they never harvested their crop until after the withering of the leaves of the plant. I have also frequently enquired if any sort or variety had ever been newly raised by them, or their immediate fathers; to this they also replied, “No.”

Is it not possible that in ancient times this plant did flower here, and that the old cultivators, either by design or accident, obtained their sorts by sowing its seed?520 The northern tribes, especially the Ngapuhi, had, more than forty years ago, obtained several new varieties of potato by sowing its seed; to which, however, they were first led by accident, having noticed some young plants which had sprung from self-sown seeds of the ripe potato berries, and from them they had obtained several good and prized sorts.

Is it also not possible that this plant (kumara), through constant, assiduous, early, artificial cultivation, extending throughout centuries, has permanently changed in this respect of non-flowering, as it is known the early varieties of potato have done in England through repeated cultivation? There the earliest varieties do not produce flowers or seed. There is an excellent paper by Mr. T. A. Knight in the Philosophical Transactions for 1806 (London), bearing on this subject,521 in which Mr. Knight shows, from experiments made by him, that the same fluid or sap gives existence alike to the tuber, the blossoms, and the seed, and that whenever a plant of the potato affords either seeds or blossoms, a diminution of the crop of tubers, or an increased expenditure of the riches of the soil, must necessarily take place. Following this out he succeeded in producing varieties of sufficiently luxuriant growth and large produce which never produced blossoms. I have already shown that the Maoris used no manure, and planted the kumara in poor gravelly soils devoid of all richness.

2. The second plant generally cultivated by them was the taro. This [15] also was propagated by planting its roots or tubers, or, more properly speaking, its small offset shoots, which were carefully pinched off for that purpose; but, being a perennial, and always “in season,” its tubers were not taken up and stowed away for future use, but were generally dug up when wanted for cooking, etc. Hence it was doubly useful to them, in some respects more so than the kumara. It was also very prolific, increasing its set tubers rapidly, both in size and in the offshoots, in a suitable soil, so that a clump of taro tubers passed into a proverb,522 to show the number and resources of a strong tribe. Of this plant there are also more than twenty varieties or species,523 which, like the kumara, differed greatly in size, in quality, and in the colour of its flesh; besides one which is known to have been introduced since the time of Cook’s visit. This newer one is called taro hoia; it is a much larger root (tuber) and plant, and it is also coarser in its flesh, and is not so generally liked. Both the tubers and the thick succulent stems (petioles) of the large leaves of the plants were eaten, but only after being thoroughly cooked; a severe burning of the lips, mouth, and throat, attended by constriction, followed the imprudent eating of it when not fully dressed.

This esculent tuber was made to play an important part in many of their higher ceremonial observances—as, at the naming of a newly-born chief’s child—at the death of a chief—at the exhumation, which in due time always followed—and also at the visits of welcome strangers. For each observance, or feast, the ancient Maoris used their particular varieties or sorts; a similar usage was also practised on such occasions with their varieties of animal food. This custom they could not so well have carried out with their kumara, as there were seasons when it was not to be had at all.

3. The third food plant cultivated by them was a fine one of the gourd family, called by them the hue. This noble and highly useful plant was annually raised from seed, and was their only one so propagated; and, curiously enough, of this plant, though yielding seed in great plenty, there was only one species and no varieties. Its seeds, before sowing, were wrapped up in a few dry fern fronds, (Pteris esculenta), and steeped in running water for a few days. It was to them of great service, furnishing not only a prized and wholesome vegetable food (or rather fruit) during the whole of the hot summer days while it lasted, and before their kumara were ripe for use, but was also of great use in many other ways. It was always a pleasing sight to see it growing in a suitable soil, as it grew fast and [16] looked so remarkably healthy with its numerous leaves, large white flowers and fruit, the latter often of all sizes, from that of a cricket ball up to that of a globular, pear-shaped, or spheroidal figure, capable of holding several gallons. As an article of food it was only used when young, and always cooked—baked like the kumara and taro, in their common earth-oven—and eaten, like them, both hot and cold. Prodigious numbers of them were formerly daily consumed in the summer season. It was from this plant that the Maoris obtained all their useful vessels, for holding water, oils, cooked animal food, etc. This was done by carefully drying and hardening the fully matured fruits with the heat of the sun and fire, and just as carefully scooping out all their contents, through a small hole made near the stalk end. In the very small calabashes so made, they kept their perfumed oils, and rouge, for anointing; of the medium sized and large ones they made useful dishes, and all their common water calabashes, while the few very largest were neatly manufactured into pots for holding preserved and potted birds. For this purpose the stalk end was cut off, and it was ingeniously fitted with a hollow cylindrical neck of carved hard wood, cut out of one piece, and always made large enough to admit a man’s hand through it; this was firmly fixed on above, while below, the rotund vase was also fitted with three (or four) legs to stand on, and to keep it from off the ground. These big vessels were always prized and taken great care of, sometimes they were named, and some lasted a whole generation or longer, and were handed down as heirlooms.

4. Another plant which was also cultivated by the old Maoris as an article of food, was the tiipara, a species of Cordyline; this was propagated by its side-shoots and suckers. Its thick succulent stem, as big as, or bigger than, that of a very large cabbage or brocoli, was cooked and eaten. In these parts, however (Hawke’s Bay), it has become very rare; indeed, I only know of the plants now growing in my own garden; which I raised from a single plant I found in an old Maori cultivation belonging to the father of the present aged chief Tareha, in 1845. I have had some dozen of plants from it, and although they were very healthy and grew well, not one of them ever flowered! in this respect resembling both the kumara and taro. It grows to 4–5 feet in height, never quite erect; and then it sends out suckers from below ground and from its stem, and dies. Thirty years ago, whenever some of the oldest chiefs here should happen to see this plant growing in my garden, they would invariably longingly beg for its stems to cook for a meal, saying how much they liked it. Its leaf is shorter and broader and of a finer texture than that of C. australis, with slightly recurved edges, and its bark is also much thinner, and smooth, not rugged. I sent specimens of it (leaves only) to Dr. Sir J.D. Hooker, [17] in 1850—2, and then hoped I should see both flowers and fruit! I provisionally named it C. edulis. It was formerly cultivated extensively, both at Waikato and Upper Whanganui, also here in Hawke’s Bay, and in other places; and, from what I have heard from the Maoris, there also it did not produce flowers.

Is this another curious instance of a plant losing its powers of producing blossoms, etc., through long and continuous cultivation from its suckers?—a kind of vegetable breeding in-and-in.

I have also good reasons for believing there was yet another and a much smaller species of Cordyline formerly cultivated for the sake of its root. (It was in 1838–9, at Waikato.) 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 12–18 hours to cook them. These were chewed, or pounded and washed and squeezed, and used merely to extract the saccharine matter, which was eaten with their fern-root to give it a relish. I have never seen the plant itself, only its dried roots. It may be the same as Cordyline pumilio, but this I doubt.524 By the Maoris of Waikato it was called mauku.

5. Two other food-yielding plants were, I believe, also cultivated by the ancient Maoris, viz., the karaka (Corynocarpus lœvigata) and the kohoho525 (Solanum aviculare.) Occasionally, at least, they planted them both in their plantations, and also in their towns (pas). And this will account for the karaka being often found isolated, or in small clumps of old trees, in many spots inland, away from its own natural habitat near the sea. I am the more inclined to believe that they did so, from the fact of my having been informed many years ago by an old priest (tohunga), of the secret tabooed way to make a young karaka tree, on its being so transplanted, become fruitful. Nevertheless they always preferred the fruit of the wild or naturally growing ones; so, under that head, I shall mention its serviceable fruits and its uses. And just so of the kohoho, which may still be found of a large size in old pas and plantations. A cultivated kohoho, in ancient days, belonging to the Chief Uenuku, is made to play an important part in one of their legends.526

As I have prominently brought the old Maoris before you in this paper, as great cultivators of the soil, I will also briefly mention two other plants (not being food-producing plants) which they also cultivated for textile uses; seeing they were but of two kinds,—including the several varieties of one of them. [18]



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