Lacebark is also known as thousand jacket or ribbon wood and these names all refer to the soft net-like fibre underneath its bark which is perforated with holes. This bark has a soft, delicate appearance and can be used in fine decorative weaving. Both Māori and Pākehā made the bark into ribbons, and used it as trimming, braiding and embroidery on everything form hats, bonnets, dresses, baskets, bands, kilts, capes and poi.
However despite its soft appearance it is surprisingly tough and resistant to damp. Therefore it was also employed in tasks requiring strength and durability, and plaited into nets, baskets, piupiu and ropes. The bark could be laid out in the hull of a waka and smeared with gum to ensure it was watertight or soaked in shark liver oil (mango ururoa) and used to polish greenstone. Ngāti porou used lacebark to sound the war alarm. A quantity of bark was tied tightly with flax fibre and suspended on the watchmen’s platform overlooking a pa or village and struck with a wooden beater to raise the alarm.
Lacebark comes from the Mallow family which has a long history of traditional medicine use and includes plants such as Slippery Elm and Marshmallow root. The leaves, bark and flowers of lacebark have all been used medicinally in New Zealand. For newborn babies with sores, it could be soaked in oil and used as a soft bandage. Bushman infused the leaves with water and drunk the broth to ease stomachaches.
The bark was bruised into a pulp and used as a poultice on boils, wounds, ulcers and burns. There are some reports it was used as a type of sanitary towel prior to European arrival, and it was occasionally used to wrap bones for burial. Sore eyes could be treated with the bark as well, which was cut into thin strips and soaked in water for several days until a thick jelly forms. The jelly was then gently rubbed over sore and tired eyes. Many of these properties relate to a polysaccharide mucilage – a slimy sugary substance that is produced within the leaves and bark. This substance is starting to get some attention from scientists who have analysed its physical and chemical structure, and suggested it may have potential use in oral pharmaceuticals and the food industry.
The inner bark was eaten, although only in times of extreme hunger. Certainly times would need to be pretty tough to consider it as a food option as it does not taste edible. Even kererū will only resort to eating the leaves in times of desperation. ‘A kereru eating lacebark leaves’ was a Māori proverb, used to describe a person who was looking too skinny, or to describe a meal made of poor quality winter foods.
In the summer months lacebark is showered in attractive white flowers. By autumn it unleashes a flood of wind-dispersed seed which spring up as seedlings all around the parent plant. The plants are particularly fast growing, making them excellent for gardens and hedges. But this also brings them into problems in some areas of the country. The natural range of lacebark is thought to be north of Hamilton, but because it has been planted widely in New Zealand it has become something of a “weedy native” spreading out from peoples gardens into areas it never existed previously.
- Māori Plant Use Database
- Landcare Research – Weaving Plants
- Te Mara Reo – Houhere
- NZPCN – Hoheria populnea
Read about other plants used for weaving: