On not eating the nikau palm
Wellington lost one of its famous sons this year, with, architect, Sir Ian Athfield bidding farewell at the age of 74. Eulogies spoke of his buildings changing the face of Wellington, but I suspect that for most locals it’s not a whole building that they’d associate with Athfield, just a specific part: the structural-support pillars of the city library. Each had the potential to be unsightly poles, instead they were transformed. Not to Corinthian columns or anything as old world as that, but to nikau palms with fronds and trunks of copper, zinc and steel.
The southernmost palm in the world, the nikau’s seeds are spread by kiwi and other native birds. This seems appropriate for such a New Zealand icon, its tropical fronds a reminder that we are a Pacific nation. That said I do feel for this country’s first human inhabitants, coming from islands of breadfruit and coconuts, and spotting what looked like a food source they knew, only to find that its graceful, familiar form would never bear an edible nut. And for this reason, I am sympathetic to the theory that nikau means ‘without nuts’, that these trees would always be known by their failed promise.
They would still find uses for the nikau though. It’s long, tough leaves are a natural thatch for a roof, and could also be woven in baskets and mats. And there is food in those trees. Its roots, and flowers could be eaten, and while green so could its berries. Once red they are so hard that it’s said they were used for ammunition.
But it’s a different edible feature that gave rise to another name for the nikau. The heart of the palm could be harvested and eaten, and is by all accounts delicious. This doesn’t come without cost as taking it has only one outcome for the tree: death. And for this reason, it was dubbed ‘millionaire’s salad’ by pakeha settlers. I’ve always thought this was an interesting name to come from those days of seal clubbing and kauri chopping, with its suggestion that to kill a nikau for food is an extreme act, one limited to the profligate. I should also note that nikau hearts have a laxative effect, but then it’s probably rich people who are most into colon cleansing diets and the like.
Nikau are extremely slow growing, taking 40 years to grow a trunk, 200 years to make it to ten metres. They stand out in the bush, not rare but not exactly commonplace either, bringing their strange elegance to stands of gnarly beech. Far too pretty to eat no matter how rich we are. Let’s admire them instead. Bring them into our cities, build statues of them around our civic buildings. I believe someone has shown that it can be done.