Māori Plant Use

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Plant Use Details 

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Pteridium esculentum. Bracken. Rarahu. Aruhe. Fernroot. Main reference.
FAMILY: Dennstaedtiaceae
BOTANICAL NAME: Pteridium esculentum
PREVIOUS NAMES: Pteris esculentum
MĀORI NAME: Whole plant: RĀRAHU, rahurahu, manehu, mārohi, tākaka, rarauhe-mahuika, mākaka, rarauhe (southern term - Karetai to Beattie, MS 582/E/11, Hocken Library).
Rhizome or root (generic terms) : ARUHE, mātā-kai-awatea, kowauwau, mākaka, mohani, mārohi, putuputu, peka. roi
Hard, black fibres found in root: tākaka
Fronds: rauaruhe.
Stem of leaf frond: tākaka, kākaka, kākā
Young shoots: mākehu, mōkehu, māhunu, miha, mahuhu, koata, koeata, kōnehu, kotau, pananehu, pītau.
Fine pubescence, spores on unopened fronds: mōnehu, nehu. Kei monehu toku (Don't let the fern dust come onto my clothes) Williams 1971.
Fresh growth after burn: tope.
Meal: renga.
COMMON NAME: bracken; bracken fern
NOTES: Search other records (use search text: Pteridium) for other names and terms relating to fernroot, including honorific terms, names for superior and poor selections, growing fernroot, processes relating to preparation, places found, traditions.
MEDICINAL: '.. an article much prized, especially by the sick..' Best antidote for sea-sickness.(Taylor 1855). Invalid food, antidote for seasickness (Goldie 1905). Fernroot is a preventive of seasickness - Best not sure whether it has to be eaten or worn around the neck in this instance. (Best 1942).
A small piece of aruhe suspended from the neck will preserve the wearer from such afflictions as headache, colds, influenza. Amulet called a pitopito.(Turei ??, Best 1942).
Ashes and charcoal dust of burnt fronds applied to severe burns (Colenso 1869a).
The root of the edible fern is a diarrhoea cure - one ordinary root being enough when baked or boiled to cure the severest diarrhoea (O'Carroll 1884). Tender shoot eaten to cure dysentery (Kerry-Nicholls 1886) A diet of fernroot causes severe constipation (Best 1906).
In South Westland, pains and aches were usually healed with fern roots that were bandaged next to the body to drive the taipo (demon spirit) away (Madgwick 1992).
It has been reported that a decoction of fernroot prepared by the Māori effective in influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 (Lundius O. C. D., personal communication cited in Brooker, Cambie and Cooper 1987).
See notes on related pharmacology and chemistry in Brooker Cambie and Cooper 1987. See Riley 1994 for information on medicinal uses of related plants elsewhere in the world.
FOOD: Fernroot a major food of the Māori, recorded by early explorers and many writers. Notes on harvesting and preparation in Colenso 1881. Also included, Appendix D, is a section on fernroot varieties and their names. These names are recorded individually in this database. See also Colenso 1869b.

Large section on fernroot - terminology, mythology, harvesting, best locations, preparation, storage - in Best 1942, pp. 72-86. Section on harvesting and preparation of fernroot by Tūhoe (Urewera) in Best 1903.

Harvesting and preparation of fernroot also described in Taylor 1855 '... that part which is selected is the deepest in the earth' (Taylor 1847).
Roi... 'was presented [at the feast] in the uncooked state, in which it is usually kept ready for use.' (Potts 1879)
''The natives find this dish pleasant, but foreigners find it tasteless ...even...indigestible'' (Servant 1973).
Meals of roasted fernroot described in Nicholas 1817.
Young shoots occasionally cooked and eaten 'but they do not make a toothsome dish'. (Best 1942).
''Aruhe was cultivated, and there were many fern root grounds; some of them very ancient' . Preparation described. 'A favourite relish eaten with it was inanga, a small fish found in many of the lakes'. Cultivations might be 2-15 miles away from kainga. Kept under rāhui (as were harakeke, raupō and kākaho sites). Makereti lists the locations of Arawa fernroot grounds. (Makereti 1938).

South Island: Description of best conditions for growing fernroot, cooking. Sometimes sweetened with tutu juice. Excellent sustaining food for the traveller.(Shortland 1851).
''It used to be mixed with whitebait, these tiny fish being beaten into it; the name of the resulting mash was kohere-aruhe'' (Māori informant in Beattie 1920).
Pau-upoko, near Port Molyneux (mouth of Clutha), reknowned for excellence of fernroot. 'Proper' fernroot did not grow in Tuturau district, Southland; brought from Otama and Tokanui (Beattie 1920).
Fernroot eaten by South Westland Māori. Waitaha said to have brought it on the canoe Uruao. (Madgwick 1992).

Chatham Islands: A missionary observer in the Chathams described how bracken was dug in a single harvest about the end of March when the rhizomes were mature. In the Urewera, fernroot was harvested in early summer when the rhizomes are new and soft. The Chatham Island roots would have been large, but tough and fibrous. (In New Zealand Nature Heritage offprint, n.d.)
DOMESTIC: Beaters for beating fernroot made from a hard wood (Te Rangi Hiroa 1949).

Best 1942 gives the terms paoi, patō, patu aruhe and takaukau for wooden pounders or beaters. Pōtuki or poutuki are names given in Williams 1971 as a pestle for pounding fernroot, etc. According to Best, the word tuki denotes endwise use, as a pestle is used, but ''the Māori says that aruhe beaters (patu aruhe) were not used in that manner''.
CONSTRUCTION: Fronds used to line floor of storage pits (Best 1916).

Stalks used for lining large public whare, ... ''with the small, light-brown, narrow stalks ...... , all cut to one length, and placed horizontally and closely, and built up, or interlaced together in separate panels between the pilasters of the building, wiht a very great deal of care and trouble'' (Colenso 1882b).

Used to bind soil when making ramparts (Best 1927).
FISHING AND HUNTING: Bunches of bracken fronds were sunk to the bottom or tied to a post in the lake (Rotorua). Left some time, then drawn up and shaken to release kōura (freshwater crayfish). (Makereti 1938)
TOXINS: The young bracken fronds have been found to be highly carcinogenic. See notes in Brooker, Cambie and Cooper 1987. Also Hirono 1972, 1973; Aston 1923c; Evans 1976; Hodge 1973.
PASTIME: Straight stems used for spears or darts in games. Ends bound with flax. Stems used in kite making. (Best 1925).
TRADITIONS: Notes on mythology in Colenso 1881, Best 1942). Toi taught men to eat fernroot and the stem of tī 'Te kai rakau a Toi'. (White 1887; Vol III) Three varieties taken by Kahu to Chatham Islands. Mentioned in early traditions of New Zealand. (Te Rangi Hiroa 1949). In tradition of Horouta canoe and the introduction of kūmara to New Zealand, fernroot mentioned as one of the foods given to Kahukura by Toi. Fernroot must not be mixed up with, lie alongside kūmara, 'or there will be trouble' (Turei 1912)

Fernroot said to have been brought to South Westland by the Waitaha in the canoe Uruao. (Madgwick 1992)

Haumia an emblematical term for rhizomes (Best 1908). Sayings related to fernroot in Best 1903, p.52. The mauri of the Matatua canoe was a piece of fern or fernroot, mākaka. A piece of this fern would be bruised, placed on affected part to find cause of illness.(Best 1901).

It is an aitua (evil omen) to beat out fernroot (to prepare it for cooking) at night. If do so, ere long my head will be pounded by the club of an enemy. Should the tipua cause a fog to descend on account of your trespassing on its domain the best thing to do is to take a stalk of rarauhe fern, strip the leaves off, and then stick into ground butt upwards. You then split the butt end and insert in the cleft a piece of earth. The fog will clear away. Should the whole sky be obscured, manipulate 2 fernstalks in this way (Ordinary fog, take a handful of wood ash and cast into fog as if sowing seed) (Best 1898).
PROVERBS: 'Patua iho, he kaka, ki tahaki tera; a, ka puehuehu, ma tana whaiaro tera. He pounds away, lo! a stringy bit,- that's placed alongside (for the visitors); ha! a nice mealy bit, that's for himself or his favourite. This has reference to the preparation of fern-root for eating; and was used for a sly, selfish. greedy person.' (Colenso 1880: 122)
The following sayings in Best 1903:
''Te manawa nui o Whete'' (sustaining power of Whete). Whete was an ancestor who would eat large quantities of fernroot cakes before going into battle and performing great feats of valour.
''Kaua e patu i te aruhe i te po. He upokotangata, he tohu aitua''. Don't pound fernroot at night. A human head, an evil omen. (Your head will then be pounded by your enemy).
''mātā kai awatea'' also refers to prejudice against pounding fernroot at night.
''Te aka o tuwhenua'' - creeper of the solid earth, an allusion to the far reaching roots of fernroot.
LINK WORDS: Ripogonum, Cortaderia, Ipomoea, bracken, fern root, Metrosideros, aruhe, Typha, Hedycarya, Chatham Islands, fernroot, Melicytus, Coriaria, Pteridium