The deadly poison of the tutu berries

New Zealanders can be smug about our lack of harmful animals. The bush has no snakes, no wolves or bears, and our only native poisonous spider is a threatened species. But one threat we don’t lack is poisonous plants. There’s a whole smorgasbord of berries, fungi and leaves that will make you crook or even kill you if you make the mistake of eating them.

Among the most documented of these are tutu berries (Coriaria aborea). These glossy berries have poisoned so many people and animals that the word ‘tutued’ was created to describe their effect. Almost all of the plant contains the toxin tutin, which causes convulsions and in some cases death. Among those killed by tutu berries were four French sailors who made a pudding from the berries, thousands of sheep and cattle, and two circus elephants (another two were tutued but made a recovery after being injected with barbiturates). In recent years, tutu has been in the news for its contribution to poison honey. Vine hopper insects feed on the tutu sap and excrete a honeydew on the leaves. This is then harvested by bees and the tutin toxin can be found in the honey they produce. Commercial honey producers are subject to regulations to prevent this.

Pre-European Māori were familiar with the effects of the tutu and assembled a whole array of cures. In Ngāi Tahu’s Te Karaka magazine, Rob Tipa describes such remedies as hanging the victim upside down over a smoky fire to induce vomiting and burying them in sand to stop the convulsions. Neither of these sound like much fun, yet people have been willing to take the risk with tutu and Tipa also describes some of the many uses of this dangerous plant. Most of these used the juice of the tutu berries, which was strained to remove the toxic seeds. This juice could be drunk, and European settlers fermented it to make beer and wine (described as resembling a light claret). It was also used to make a jelly and for tattoo ink.

Another use for tutu was found by Patea chemist A A Gower. In 1892, he launched Ma-Uru, a patent medicine prepared from Tutu roots. Miraculous stuff if you believe the advertisements. Capable of curing, ‘Ear ache, headache, rheumatic pains, sprains. And all pain.’ But as one of the world’s follicly challenged, it’s another promise that caught my eye. Ma-Uru also ‘PROMOTES GROWTH OF HAIR’ says an 1893 notice in the Wanganui Chronicle. Sadly though the recipe for Ma-Uru has been lost to the ages, and after remembering that tutu has the power to kill elephants, I abandoned my plans to recreate this wonder drug.