The easiest way to identify taraire is to listen for the crunch of its leathery leaves under your feet. The large, green leaves are very slow to rot, and over time will build up in a thick, crunchy blanket on the forest floor. This leaf-layer smothers out many other seedlings and plants, leaving the forest open and easy to navigate on foot.
The other remarkable feature of the plant is the large, purple berry or drupe which resembles a stretched-out plum. The fruit ripen between Autumn and Spring and are a favourite food of the kererū. The birds are also one of the few remaining species with a mouth large enough to swallow and disperse the seeds, and taraire are almost entirely dependent on them for their survival. When the skin of the fruit is peeled away it reveals a striking green flesh reminiscent of an avocado. The resemblance is more than superficial as it belongs in the same family as Avocado – the lauraceae – a primitive flowering plant family which stretches back to Gondwana and includes cinnamon, bay laurel and Tawa.
Food and other uses
The flesh of the berries was occasionally eaten by Maori, particularly the children. However it has a distinct turpentine taste common in many New Zealand berries. While not very appetizing at first, it can be quite refreshing once the taste is acquired. Early sources claimed taraire seeds were poisonous, but it appears they can be eaten safely after a period of roasting or boiling. The taste and texture of these cooked seeds is reminiscent of a potato. Māori were known to eat cooked taraire seeds but generally tawa seeds were considered more desirable. Taraire was not a particularly important native timber as it is light, brittle and prone to splitting and rotting. Nevertheless it still had its uses: Māori made it into mauls and clubs and Pākehā used it for flooring, furniture, picture frames and firewood.
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