History & Culture
The thick black scrambling vines of Supplejack – Kareao – are a distinctive feature of the New Zealand rainforest. In Māori tradition, the vines grew from the tail of the monstrous eel god – Tunaroa. When Maui’s wife Raukura was gathering water from a stream, Tunaroa knocked her over with his giant tail and insulted her. In revenge, Maui ambushed Tunaroa – hacking him to pieces with this axe. The blood of Tunaroa was spattered across the birds such as Pūkeko and Kākāriki, and plants such as Toa Toa, Rimu, Tōtara & Mataī giving them their distinctive red colouring. Tunaroa’s dismembered head was thrown into the sea to give rise to marine eels, while the tail gave rise to the freshwater eels. The very tip of the tail took root in the forest to become the Supplejack vine, which from then on was used to construct eel traps.
Dense thickets of Supplejack provide an almost impenetrable barrier to moving about in the bush. Anyone who is familiar with tramping off-track in New Zealand is likely to be familiar with the peculiar form of bush-yoga that is required to navigate through them. The trials of contending with Supplejack were also faced by the first Europeans to arrive in New Zealand. While anchored in Dusky Sound, Captain James Cook wrote in his journal;
“In many parts the woods are so over-run with supplejacks, that it is scarcely possible to force one’s way amongst them. I have seen several which were fifty or sixty fathoms long.”
Despite the anguish it causes to trampers, Supplejack has proved itself an incredibly useful and practical plant. It was an important medicinal plant for Māori, and an infusion of the root was used to treat blood disorders, skin diseases, rheumatism, fever, bowel complaints and sexually transmitted diseases. There are even some reports that the decoction was drunk by pregnant women in order to cause an abortion. The shoots were eaten to treat scabies & itchiness, and sap from the broken stem was applied to cuts and grazes. For larger wounds, a piece of dry Kareao was ignited and burned near the cut to cauterise the wound.
The tough, pliable, woody stem provided an excellent construction material and was used
to make baskets and bind fences, houses, canoes and platforms. The sturdy vines made excellent pots, traps and nets for catching crayfish, eels and fish such as kōkopu. It was also hollowed out and made into musical instruments such as trumpets and bullroarers.
The bright red flesh of the berry was eaten, however a more important food source would have been the soft growing shoots. Affectionately known as “bush asparagus” these shoots taste like green beans and provide an excellent thirst-quenching snack. However, it is essential that they are identified correctly. Recently a tramper in the Waitakere ranges confused the shoots with the growing tips of Tutu – one of the deadliest plants in the New Zealand bush. Luckily he survived, but the neurotoxin caused such violent convulsions that they dislocated his shoulder.