A breakdown of useful plants to know when out on the trail.
Want to upskill your tramping game? A little bit of botany goes a long way. Knowing a few key native plants could be just what you need to add that spice to your next tramping meal, fix your broken boots or find your way back home.
Rangiora is an incredibly useful plant when you are caught short in the bush and you’ve left your loo paper at home. The large, soft, papery leaves were used by early settlers as a substitute toilet paper and given the names ‘bushman’s friend’ and ‘bushman’s toilet paper’. If you think you might need it, it is far better to collect the leaves in advance – otherwise you might find yourself in an emergency with only mānuka and gorse for comfort.
Ponga or silver fern is a nice easy one to identify, it’s the only tree fern with a silvery-white underside. Leaving a trail of these upturned fronds behind you, like Hansel and Gretel, is a great way to mark your route if you are lost in the bush. They are easy to spot and will shine brightly in moonlight or torchlight. Try it on your next tramp – lay out a few fronds and then watch as they light up when you switch on your headlamp.
Anyone who has spent a cold night on the floor of a hut can attest – the key to staying warm overnight is having good ground insulation. While many native plants can provide a rough temporary mattress, mangemange – known as the bushman’s mattress – is surely the best. A climbing fern that scrambles across the forest floor and into the canopy, its tendrils twist and coil into little bed springs. If you need some extra insulation, try stuffing it under your sleeping mat or filling up your pack liner to make a rough bed for the night.
Harakeke is maybe the most useful plant in New Zealand and makes a great substitute for rope or string. It’s a good quick fix for mending a broken pack or making a replacement bootlace. There is also an edible clear gum at the base of the leaves which can be rubbed on sore, blistered feet. The nectar at the base of the flowers is also edible and delicious, and provides a quick energy hit – it’s particularly good after rain as the little flower cups fill up with sweet sugary water.
The spicy leaves of the pepper tree – horopito – are delicious and are used as an ingredient in seasonings and marinades. Add some flavour to your dehydrated meals by mixing in a few crushed leaves – or add a couple to the pot when making hot chocolate. As well as food, horopito is an important rongoā plant (traditional Māori medicine) and is known as ‘bushman’s painkiller’. It has been found to have antifungal, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties and in emergencies can be chewed up and applied to wounds.