One of the easiest ways to tell whether you are looking at mahoe is to look at the leaf litter on the forest floor. The decaying leaves form characteristic skeleton leaves, as the leaf matter dies away and leaves only the architecture of the veins. Often piles of these dead skeleton leaves build up around the base of the tree.
Another interesting feature of the plant is that it flowers and fruits directly from the woody branches – a characteristic known as ramiflory. This leads to branches covered in rows of purple globular berries that are readily consumed by birds. They are not known to be edible to humans, and there is no record of their use by either Māori or Pākehā.
Maui, Mahoe & The Origin of Fire
Mahoe has a special relationship with fire, and this was believed to be the a result of the actions of Maui – the great trickster god of Polynesian tradition. Maui made it his goal to discover the secret of fire – so, one day, Maui put out all the fires in his village, and volunteered to go meet with his Grandmother Mahuika the fire god – whose fingernails were made of flame. Eventually he persuaded her to part with one of her fiery fingernails, and then immediately extinguished it in a nearby river. Maui persuaded her to give him another nail, and another, and continued to put them out in the water. By the last nail, Mahuika realized what Maui was doing and in a fit of anger threw up a great flame against him. The great flame threatened to ignite the earth as seas began to boil and trees burned. So Maui called on his ancestor Tāwhirimātea – god of the weather to put out the flame.
With the last of her fire being rained out, Mahuika collected the last few sparks and looked for somewhere to place them. The trees of rata, hīnau, kahikatea, rimu, and miro all refused her, but the trees of the kaikomako and mahoe accepted. Maui saw Mahuika place the spark of fire in these trees, and returned to his village to show his family and friends how they could bring out the fire by rubbing the sticks of these trees together.
How to make fire from Mahoe
Mahoe is particularly useful as a base wood for fire making. First a rubbing stick was selected – typically kaikomako which burns fast – and this was repeatedly rubbed back and forth along a wedge of mahoe which burns slow. As it is rubbed vigorously it forms a groove in the mahoe, and embers are created. These were carefully caught in a cushion of dry moss or the muka of prepared harakeke, and gently fanned till they burst into flame.
Fire-making kits such as these were essential tools and were highly prized. They were protected from the rain and wet at all times and hidden under rain capes when travelling between villages. Because of its slow burning ability, mahoe was useful in carrying fire across distances as well. The glowing embers of mahoe were placed in a stone container, and then vigorously shaken to begin the blaze again. In recent times, Boy Scouts and Girl Guides have been taught similar techniques for making fire with mahoe, creating roaring fires to toast bread and marshmallows.
The Mahoe Tattoo
Mahoe had an important role to play in Ta Moko – Maori tattoo art. Ta Moko was considered a sacred process, and a rite of passage into adulthood. The elaborate forms and spiral patterns are used as a status symbol and to represent iwi affiliations and family connections. Mahoe berries were used to make ink for Ta Moko, and were mixed with the vegetable caterpillar fungus Ophiocordyceps robertsii and various gums and oils. Mahoe wood was also made into a soft wooden mallet for tattooing, and used to tap a small chisel made from the bone of an albatross.
As the marks were hammered in, the ink was dabbed into the wounds. Careful concentration was needed from the tattoo artist when working on the facial tattoo, and if too much force was applied the chisel could be driven through to the other side of the cheek, leaving a permanent hole.
The leaves of mahoe could be boiled and applied to scabies and sores. The bark was used as a bandage for burns or soaked in a bath and used for treating tuberculosis. When out tramping in the wilderness, bushmen would hold mahoe leaves in the mouth, half-in half-out, and this was said to stimulate saliva and relieve the need for water.
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Header image: Jon Sullivan, CCBY