Story: Te ngahere – forest lore
Page 4 – Flowering plants
Oral traditions say that white-flowered puawānanga (clematis) is the child of Puanga (Rigel, the top star in Orion) and Rehua (Antares in Scorpio). Puanga’s rising in June marks the beginning of winter, and the rising of Rehua in December signals summer – puawānanga blooms in the months between them. Garlands were made from the flowers.
When the bright yellow flowers of kōwhai bloom, in late winter and early spring, it is time to plant kūmara (sweet potato). Pigment for yellow dye was extracted from the flowers, and the flexible branches were good for making houses and bird snares.
Pōhutukawa reaches 20 metres high, and grew wild north of Kāwhia, Lake Taupō and Ōpōtiki. Its distinctive red flowers signalled the arrival of summer. The boiled juice of the inner bark could cure diarrhoea, and the nectar was good for sore throats. This was a coastal tree, and lower branches which curved down, but had not yet penetrated the ground to become roots, were ideal for one-piece fish hooks.
Māori were cautious of two thorny plants in the bush. Ongaonga or tree nettle has 6-millimetre-long stinging hairs that can kill small animals such as rats and cats. Dogs, horses and cattle can also die, and in 1961 a tramper died after pushing through a thicket of it. Tātaramoa or bush lawyer has hooked thorns that snag clothing and rip or prick the skin. Its fruit can be eaten, and the vine yields water when cut.
The main inland relation of the pōhutukawa, the northern rātā, is found north of Kaikōura and grows up to 25 metres tall. It usually begins life as a vine that grows around host trees, and finally engulfs them completely. The bark was used to help heal wounds and burns, and cure diseases.
Some species of rātā never become trees, but grow into a mass of vines. These were cut and drained of drinking water.