The Uses of the Cabbage Tree
A brief history
I hope one day they’ll plant me in
The kind of hole they dig for horses
Under a hilltop cabbage tree.
James K. Baxter, 1950
Pre-European years - The cabbage tree or tī as it is known by Māori, was an important food source throughout New Zealand. The roots of young trees were dug up and baked in underground ovens called umu tī, before being beaten and soaked in water to extract the sugar. The resulting syrup, known as kāuru was combined with baked fern root to create a sweet dish that, according to explorer Thomas Brunner, “you eat with a similar relish to ginger bread.” The leaves of the tree were also used for food, with the fleshy base of the frond stem removed and cooked to create a bitter but nutritious vegetable known as kōuka that was often eaten with fatty foods like eel and muttonbird.
1769 - Botanically close to the lily, coryline australis, was first referred to as cabbage tree by James Cook and his crew who used the stalks of young leaves as a substitute for cabbage.
1830s - After losing interest in his profession of making oil barrels at a Southland whaling station, Irish cooper Owen McShane turned his attention to illegally making rum from the roots of cabbage trees. Known as Cooper’s schnapps or McShane’s oil, the liquor had an unpleasant taste but made an effective substitute for whiskey. At dinner time in Bluff’s Argyle Hotel, a barrel of cabbage tree rum would be placed in the centre of each table for patrons to help themselves.
1860s - The leafy heads of cabbage tree branches were fashioned into toboggans or pānukunuku. Popular with children for many years, a pānukunuku craze was reported by Herries Beatie in Henly, Otago where unhappy mothers mended ripped trousers with brightly coloured patches as a deterrent.
1868 - Christchurch’s first mayor, William Wilson was known by many as ‘Cabbage Wilson’ for his cabbage tree hat, made from woven leaves, a popular accessory among pioneers of the time.
1870s - 1920s - Cabbage tree trunks were used by gum diggers in the far north to build huts. It is also said that the naturally hollow, fire resistant trunks were sometimes used for chimneys.
20th century - New Zealanders discovered the infuriating problem of cabbage tree leaves wrapping themselves around lawnmower blades. As a result many engage in the tedious but necessary chore of picking up the dead leaves before mowing the lawn. Once collected they make excellent compost or, if tied in a bunch and kept dry, effective kindling for the fireplace.
2000 - Tipene Manihera of Christchurch, once overweight and unwell, attributes his return to health to the medicinal properties of kōuka which he eats several times a week.