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May 2019 Issue
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Unearthing the roots of New Zealand flora

Robert Vennell’s fascination for edible plants grew from a childhood love of survival stories
Author Robert Vennell blends history and science together in his book The Meaning of Trees.

What first got you interested in native plants?

As a kid I was fascinated by survival stories – I loved reading anything about people lost in the wilderness. I wanted to know how you could use native plants for survival and which ones were edible and which were poisonous. Later, I made myself a goal of eating my way through the New Zealand forest. I got a copy of Andrew Crowe’s Field Guide to the Native Edible Plants of New Zealand and used it as a checklist. I still have the same copy, battered and smudged with plenty of scribbles in the margins about tasting notes and additional things I’ve tried.

What made you focus on the history of plants in New Zealand?

Ever since I started this journey of eating native plants and writing about them, I became fascinated with all the different ways we rely on plants. Without plants, human life as we know it could not exist. They produce the air we breathe, the food we eat and the raw materials for our housing, clothes and tools – and yet they don’t often feature as big characters in our history books. I wanted to bring the role plants have played to the forefront and show that from the very first moment humans arrived in Aotearoa, plants have been shaping the story of New Zealand.

What are some of your favourite bush snacks or seasonings?

Mountain horopito leaves are a great way to quickly spice up your tramping meals. I use them in hot chocolate, or you could grind them up and add them to your dehydrated meals. It’s good to use them sparingly though as they can be really spicy. I also love experimenting with different bush teas. My favourite is a blend of kawa-kawa and kanuka leaves. Take a handful of both and leave on the boil for a few minutes.

Do you have any plant hacks for trampers?

Harakeke is easily one of our most useful and practical plants. The leaves are incredibly strong and durable and can be used for anything you would use rope for. If your boots fall apart, you can weave makeshift shoes out of the leaves. In former times, Māori would traverse the Southern Alps wearing woven sandals of harakeke. As well as the leaves, the nectar produced by the flowers is sweet and delicious. The gum found at the base of the leaves is edible and can be rubbed inside your socks to help prevent blisters. Another good plant to know about is rangiora – the bushman’s friend. The large papery leaves can be used as toilet paper if you get caught short. It’s good to be on the lookout for it ahead of time though, as it always seems to be mysteriously absent when you need it most.

Are there any native plants people need to watch out for?

Ongaonga is a powerful stinging nettle that is responsible for at least one death in modern times. Tutu is one of our most poisonous plants, and there have been a number of deaths from eating the berries which contain a powerful neurotoxin. Karaka berries contain a kernel which is full of a toxic alkaloid which could leave you permanently paralysed.

How unique is New Zealand’s flora?

It is incredibly unique – around 80 per cent of our plant species are endemic. They share some strange features which mark them out from the rest of the world’s flora. For example, we have an unusually high number of divaricating plants – shrubby plants where the branches grow in a wiry tangle. We don’t know for sure why – it may have evolved as an adaptation to protect leaves from harsh weather conditions, or to protect them from the prying beaks of moa.

Many of our plants are just plain weird. We have the tallest moss in the world which grows around 60cm tall and looks like a tiny pine tree. And perhaps strangest of all we have Pua o te Reinga – the flower of the underworld. This parasitic plant spends its life underground stealing sugar and nutrients from the roots of other plants. When it is ready to bloom, the flowers emerge out of the ground and are pollinated by short-tailed bats.