Celery Pine – Phyllocladus trichomanioides


The Maori name for Celery pine is Tanekaha “Strong Man” and its an incredibly apt description. Celery pine possesses one of the strongest native timbers, and it was used extensively by both Maori and Europeans for any task that required strength and durability.

divis-french-waiutaEuropeans used Celery pine in houses, decks, bridges, railways, and as props to hold open gold and coal mines. Maori found a myriad of uses for the plant, crafting it into waka, masts, paddles, bowls, clubs, spears and walking sticks. The tough durable wood made an excellent fishing material. Young twigs were carved into fish hooks and longer branches were used as fishing rods and nets for catching Marblefish.

Flore_des_serres_v13_073a.jpgNot only was Celery pine a useful timber tree, its bark was a rich source of red dye, which was used by Maori in the all-important process of flax weaving. Unsurprisingly, Tanekaha trees were highly valued, particular in areas were they were scarce. In Ruatuhuna, the few large specimens of Celery pine were so highly prized that they had their own names, and only those with direct ancestry to the area were allowed to take bark from them.

The English name – Celery Pine –   refers to the strange, leathery leaves which resemble those of celery.  In actual fact, these are not leaves at all; they are twigs – Phyllodes –  that have been flattened out and packed full of  photosynthetic material.

Want to learn more about Celery Pine?

Nga Tipu Whakaoranga; Maori Plant Use Database
New Zealand Plant Conservation Network

Photo Credits: Header Image was taken by Robert Vennell, Miners Photo was taken By Joseph Minis and Sourced from Bob Mckerrow – Wayfarer

Maori & Mushrooms: Fungi in Aotearoa


The Forgotten Kingdom

We often think about Plants and Fungi together, but in truth Fungi are more closely related to humans than plants. They belong to their own separate kingdom containing millions of species, vastly outnumbering plants. Not only that, but the part of the fungi we are most familiar with – the toadstool or mushroom – is just the tip of the iceberg. Most of the fungi lies below the soil, a massive network of thread-like cells. The mushroom is simply a reproductive organ, like the flower of a plant, it bursts forth to spread its spores and then dies away again.

But this forgotten kingdom does have an important and crucial link with plants. 95% of all plant families form mutualistic relationships with fungi in the soil. Plants supply the fungi with food from the sun and in return fungi supply extra water and nutrients. Without this relationship, plants might never have been able to colonise the land at all.

In New Zealand, around 7,500 species have been described but many more wait to be discovered. While fungi use is not particularly common in New Zealand, fungi have served an important role in our history and culture. The following list contains some of the more common fungi in New Zealand that have been used by humans for food, medicine or recreation.


Basket Fungus – Ileodictyon cibarium

This strange, foul smelling fungus was known to Maori as Tutae kehua – ghost dung. It certainly looks like the kind of thing left behind by ghosts, and often emerges after thunderstorms. Maori would eat the thick gooey shell before the basket bursts out and develops a layer of stinky slime. It could be roasted in the ashes of a fire, or cooked in hangi.


Werewerekokako – Entoloma hochstetteri

The most distinctive fungi in the country, Werewerekokako immediately stands out on the forest floor with a bright turquoise blue. The Maori name derives from this blue colour, which resembles the wattles of Kokako. It has the distinction of being the only fungi in the world to feature on a bank note, being found on the reverse of the New Zealand 50$ note. It is not known to be toxic, although other members of this genus are.


Wood Ear Fungus – Auricularia polytricha

Wood ear was eaten by Maori when nothing better could be found to eat – and even then was stewed with other food to hide the taste. However it is a popular food in China where it is also used medicinally. In the late 1800s New Zealand had a thriving trade exporting it from Taranaki to China. Its other name “Jews Ear Fungus” is a reference to Judas Iscariot, who is reputed to have hanged himself on an elder tree after the betrayal of Jesus Christ.


Vegetable Caterpillar – Cordyceps robertsii

The vegetable caterpillar belong to a family of fungi that are parasites on insect hosts. The fungi grows inside caterpillars, consuming the tissue of their host before bursting forth to release its spores. Maori used Vegetable caterpillar to treat asthma and produce ink for Ta moko.


Heart Rot Fungus – Agrocybe parasitica

Heart rot fungus was used by Maori to treat fever, and was also given to expectant mothers before birth, although the purpose of this remains unclear. It was also used as an antidote to poisoning by toxic plants such as Karaka and Tutu.

Putawa – Laetiporus portentosus

Putawa was used by Maori as tinder for lighting fires, and could be useful for carrying fires between locations. It was also used medicinally as a wound protector, and to help ease a difficult childbirth.


Puffball – Calvatia spp.

These brain-like fungi were eaten by Maori when young. They could also have a range of medicinal uses, the spores were applied to heal burns, it could be used to stop bleeding, and taken as an anaesthetic.


Magic Mushrooms – Psilocybe spp.

Yes, in case you were wondering – New Zealand does contain its share of Psilocybe or “Magic” mushrooms. If consumed, these mushrooms produce intense, hallucinatory experiences. The cap and stalk of the mushrooms turns blue when handled. It is a criminal offence to harvest these mushrooms in New Zealand.


Fly Agaric – Amanita muscaria

The quintessential toadstool from fairy tales and children’s books – Fly Agaric produces hallucinations if eaten and can send the victim into a deep coma-like sleep. To date there have been no fatalities in New Zealand, but deaths are recorded in other countries. They typically occur in exotic forest plantations but have begun to invade native beech forest.


Want to learn more about fungi in New Zealand?
Medicinal Uses of Fungi by Maori
Te Ara; The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Landcare Research Fungal Guide

Native Bush Tea


Many plants in the New Zealand bush make excellent tea.

Maori have been brewing plant teas for centuries, and have an extensive knowledge of the best brews and herbal remedies. European settlers also experimented with a wide range of native teas, searching for native substitutes to replace the Earl Grey and English Breakfast they had left behind.

In this section I have compiled all the plants I could find that have some historical record of being drunk as a tea or leaf infusion. Where appropriate, I have also fleshed this out with my own experience drinking native brews.


Kawakawa – Macropiper excelsa
Also known as the New Zealand pepper tree, Kawakawa produces a lightly spicy, refreshing drink. The ultimate herbal tonic, Kawakawa tea was an important Rongoa plant – used to treat stomach pain, worms, toothache and disease. Many of the leaves are riddled with holes from the Kawakawa Looper caterpillar. The leaves with the most holes are considered the best for making tea as they contain the highest concentration of medicinal properties.


Kumarahou – Pomaderris kumerahoIMG_1152

Another key Rongoa plant, Kumarahou tea was drunk to relieve all kinds of chest complaints such as coughs, colds, asthma and bronchitis. I find it a refreshing drop and one of the better native teas. The plant is rich in saponins and produces a soap-like lather when combined with water, hence its english name Gumdiggers Soap.



Kohekohe – Dysoxylum spectabileP1090398

Kohekohe leaf infusions were used to treat colds, fever, stomach pain and sexually transmitted diseases. Mothers used to drink Kohekohe tea when they wanted to stop the secretion of milk. I found the tea exceptionally bitter, it tasted somewhat like hops. Kohekohe has been used to make beer and in my opinion that might be a better use.



Manuka – Leptospermum scoparium P1090390
Kanuka – Kunzea robusta

Manuka & Kanuka produce some of our finest native teas, with a bitter aromatic flavour. Captain Cook brewed tea from their leaves as he travelled around New Zealand and bestowed on them the English name “Tea Tree”.  Maori  had been drinking the delicious beverage for centuries before this, using it to help soothe stomach pains.



Horopito – Pseudowintera colorataP1090373.JPG

The other New Zealand Pepper tree, Horopito is packed full of antifungal compounds which leave a burning sensation in the mouth. It makes for a spicy, warming tea, and is certainly one of my favourites. Infusions of the leaves were known as “bushman’s painkiller” and were drunk to soothe chest complaints and diarrhoea.



Bush Lawyer – Rubus cissoidesP1090403

Bush lawyer leaf infusions were used to treat  sore throats, chest complaints, stomach aches and diarrhoea. I found the tea tasted rather bland – much more intriguing was a brew I made from the flowers which produced a subtle perfumey aroma.




Koromiko – Hebe spp.IMG_4607

The quintessential rongoa plant, Koromiko tea was used as a cure-all, treating stomach pain, diarrhoea, and disease. Koromiko leaves were dried and sent to New Zealand soldiers in both world wars. Typically the growing buds are used. Makes for a pleasant tea, that tastes to me very slightly of banana.



Karamu – Coprosma robustaP1090395.JPG

Karamu leaves were used as a substitute for china tea, and drunk for kidney and bladder troubles. As a tea, I thought it was passable, but wasn’t particularly excited about the taste. Karamu is in the coffee family, and the seeds may have potential as a coffee substitute.



Bidibid – Acaena anserinifoliaIMG_3478.JPG

Often used by european settlers as a substitute for tea. Bidibid was drunk by maori to treat bladder and kidney trouble and was used to feed babies when mothers could not suckle. I found the tea improved singnificantly when the leaves were hung out to dry, and tasted a lot like weak green tea.

Cabbage Tree – Cordyline australisP1060964

Boiled Cabbage tree leaves were used by Maori to treat diarrhoea and dysentry. I found the tea tasted a lot like grass, but was not altogether unpleasant.





Puriri – Vitex lucensPuriri.jpg

Puriri leaf tea was drunk to soothe sore throats. In this case the cure might be worse than the disease – I can’t recommend the tea, the taste and smell was remarkably similar to rubber.


Toatoa – Haloragis erecta

Another plant that was experimented with to produce a substitute for china tea. The botanist William Colenso believed the best indigenous tea was to blend toatoa, bidibid and Karetu. I have only tried the dried leaves and found the resulting brew tasted and smelt a bit like spinach.
This page is a work in progress – I will add more plants as I try them.
Comment below if you know any good native brews or have any thoughts on those above.

Disclaimer: Some natives teas could kill you (e.g. Tutu, Kowhai) so I recommend doing your own research and making sure you are 100% sure you have identified the plant correctly. If you don’t know what it is, don’t put it in your mouth.

Photo Credits: All images by Robert Vennell


Wharangi – Melicope ternata

IMG_0084.JPGWharangi belongs to the citrus family, and its leaves are studded with oil glands. When the leaves are crushed, they produce a familiar lemony-orange scent. Maori would chew the IMG_0083gum of Wharangi as a cure for bad breath, as it sweetens and refreshes the mouth. The gum would also be used to produce sweet smelling hair oils and perfumes.

There are conflicting reports about its toxicity. The leaves were once thought to be poisonous, but rats fed on a diet of Wharangi leaves were unharmed. Several sources claim that eating honey made from the nectar will result in immediate death.

Want to learn more about Wharangi?

Nga tipu whakaoranga: Maori plant use database
New Zealand Plant Conservation Network

Photo Credits: Robert Vennell

Bush Lawyer – Rubus cissoides


Bush lawyer – Tataramoa – is New Zealand’s answer to blackberry, a scrambling thorny climber studded with sharp backwards-curved hooks. Unlike blackberry however, Bush Lawyer can be found in the middle of the forest, snaring unsuspecting trampers in dense spiky tangles. Once it grabs hold of you, it’s unlikely to let go – presumably the rationale behind its curious English name.BushLawyer

Despite the anguish it causes, Bush Lawyer has proved itself a useful and practical plant. Europeans were quick to spot the resemblance with wild blackberry and used the fruit to make stews, preserves and jams. The large thick vines can be cut and drained to produce a juice-like beverage, a valuable source of liquid in a survival situation.

Maori also made use of the fruit, but more important were the bark and leaves which were used in a number of herbal remedies. Infusions were used to treat sore throats, chest complaints, stomach aches and diarrhoea. A vapour bath of the leaves and roots was used as a cleansing remedy after childbirth to assist with removal of the placenta.


Want to learn more about Bush Lawyer?

Nga Tipu Whakaoranga; Maori Plant Use Database
New Zealand Plant Conservation Network

Whau – Entelea arborescens


Whau is immediately distinctive in the New Zealand forest; with its large floppy heart-shaped leaves and spiky bommy knocker seeds. It produces one of the lightest woods in the world, and as such was a valuable resource for Maori. The seeds and wood could be used as floats for fishing nets and marker buoys. The trunks were also lashed together with supplejack to construct small rafts for hunting crayfish. 1024px-Whau_(Entelea_arborescens)_seed_pods

The plant was of such value to Maori that it was actively cultivated in some places. The Maori name of Auckland’s iconic Mt. Eden is Maungawhau “The Mountain of the Whau Tree” and in the past its slopes would have been covered in Whau, providing a constant supply of fishing material.

Whau is a true pioneer species.  When a gap opens in the forest it pops up instantaneously, racing through its life cycle before succumbing to old age at 10 years old. It does this by flooding the environment with long-lived seeds. These lie dormant in the soil, waiting for the opportune moment to breach the surface and begin the next mad dash to reproduction.
Sydney Parkinson Drawing - Whau

Want to learn more about Whau?

Nga Tipu Whakaoranga; Maori Plant Use Database
New Zealand Plant Conservation Network

Tawa – Beilschimedia tawa

Tawa Forest - Edin Whitehead.jpg

History & Culture

The long willow-like branches of Tawa have stolen the lives of many Kereru in their time. Maori hunters would climb great trees, carrying with them immense Tawa lances – sometimes greater than 10 metres long. Slowly, carefully, they would inch the lances closer and closer to their prey until at the final moment they would the thrust them through the heart of the bird. These spears were prized possessions, crafted over many years and handed down through the generations.  The spear-points were often made with the sharpened thigh bone of slain enemies, or – for the priveleged few – delicately carved out of pounamu.BeilschmiediaTawaKing.jpg

As well as providing Kereru, Tawa was an incredibly important source of food in its own right. Tawa is in the same family as Avocado – and has a familiar large berry with green flesh and a hard kernel. The soft flesh of the berry can be eaten, but perhaps more important was the kernel which could be boiled, roasted or steamed in hangi. The cooked kernels kept remarkably well and could store for years, making them an incredibly valuable standby food in case of difficult times.  They were a staple food source for iwi such as Tuhoe.

The importance of the food to Maori can be measured by its incorporation into traditional proverbs. It was often said that noisy children resemble tawa fires – “Ko te ahi tawa hai whakarite” – as the kernels would crack, hiss and pop. The ripe flesh of the berry was compared with a coward, while the solid kernel became a symbol of strength and heroism:

He tawa para! He whati kau tana! – The pulp of the tawa berry is easily crushed.
Ka mahi te tawa uho kit e riri – Well done, tawa kernel fighting away.

Kereru-KapitiAlthough Tawa may have snared the lives of many Kereru – it now depends on them for its own survival. Prior to the arrival of humans in New Zealand, the large Tawa berries would have been eaten and dispersed by a variety of birds such as Moa and Kakapo. However the arrival of humans and mammals precipitated one of the most catastrophic extinctions of birds the world has seen, with over 40% of bird species driven extinct. Today, Kereru is one of the only surviving birds with a mouth large enough to eat the seeds and spread them around the forest.


Other than spear-making and food, Tawa was often used medicinally as well. A brew from the bark was used to treat stomach aches and colds. Tuhoe would mix this brew with Rimu and Tutu as a decoction for wounds. Tawa was used by European settlers aswell and it proved to be a useful timber tree, with a soft wood that was used to make fences and houses.


Want to learn more about Tawa?
Nga Tipu Whakaoranga; Maori Plant Use Database
New Zealand Plant Conservation Network

Photo Credit: Edin Whitehead, Tawa Forest. All other images are in the public domain.