An Excellent Substitute
Edible plants from the New Zealand bush
I have often daydreamed about being lost in the bush, having to live off the land like a pioneer explorer or the less offensive, Bear Grylls. As I pass by all the kawakawa, totara, ponga, and countless other plant species I do not know the names of, I wonder about all the potential meals to be had in a time of need. If only I knew what was good eating. It turns out that while many New Zealand plants are at least partially edible, the bush is not quite the bounteous pantry of low hanging fruit I had hoped for.
Below are a just a few of the plants you could get at least some sustenance from. Caution should be used at all times, correct identification is crucial and I recommend you seek expert advice before consuming anything from the bush.
Mānuka - Leptospermum scoparium
The very same plant that provides bees the raw ingredient for our famed mānuka honey, can be used to brew a bitter, aromatic tea. One 19th century writer went so far as to claim it would ‘obviate the necessity of the settlers ever depending on China for its boasted herb’.
About one teaspoon of young leaves is enough for a cup, but be careful not to brew it too long, as it tends to become very bitter. Also, next time you find yourself amongst a stand of mānuka, watch out for what looks like lumps of damp icing sugar exuding from branches. This sweet, sap-like substance, known as pia mānuka was used by Māori to alleviate coughs.
New Zealand Passionfruit - Passiflora tetrandra
Belonging to the same family as regular passionfruit, this climbing shrub is found in lowland forests as far south as Christchurch. Its small pear-shaped orange fruit contain a bitter seed ‘embedded in a dry, rather sparse orange pulp’. It is this sparse pulp which that is consumed raw.
Rimu - Dacrydium cupressinum
While the base of the rimu’s seeds are known to cause constipation, it was the leaves that Captain Cook made use of on his second voyage to New Zealand. Combining the rimu leaves with those from mānuka, Cook fermented a beer that he notes was ‘exceedingly palatable, and esteemed by every one on board’.
New Zealand Flax - Phormium cookianum/tenax
The flowers of the ubiquitous flax that are so loved by the tui, contain a sweet nectar that was used by Māori and early explorers to make ‘refreshing beverage’. According 19th Century ethnobotanist Reverend Richard Taylor, one plant is able to supply around half a pint of nectar. Also according to the Reverend, flax seeds make ‘an excellent substitute for coffee’ when roasted and ground.
Bracken - Pteriium esculentum
The roots of the common and abundant fern, bracken, were among the most important native plant for the Māori diet. The starchy root needs to be soaked, then roasted before being pounded, then eaten as is, or made into a kind of cake known as komeke. Reports of the taste vary wildly, with one of the more complimentary being: ‘the taste resembled that of the crust of newly baked bread’. Less favourable was the observation that ‘a very good imitation might be made with a rotten stick, especially if slightly pounded, to which it bears a striking resemblance, both in taste and smell’.
Cabbage Tree - Cordyline australis
We’ve detailed the multitudinous uses for the iconic cabbage tree, or Tī kōuka, previously in The Uses of the Cabbage Tree. As a food, the sweet, starchy, cooked roots of several varieties were important to Māori, as was the fleshy base of the young leaves, which were used a substitute for cabbage by Captain Cook and his crew.
A Field Guide to the Native Edible Plants of New Zealand by Andrew Crowe