Informing and supporting use of our native plants
Interest in traditional uses of native plants, particularly for weaving and rongoa (natural medicine) has been increasing in recent years.
However it hasn’t always been easy for people to access detailed information on how Māori used plants, or get advice on cultivating valued plant resources.
Landcare Research is the custodian of the National New Zealand Flax Collection, a living array of more than 160 varieties of Phormium that have cultural, economic and historic interest. We have also developed and maintained Nga Tipu Whakaoranga, a comprehensive online source of information about traditional Māori uses of native plants and fungi. These are two of our biological collections and databases that have been designated by the Government as being of ‘significant national importance’.
The National Flax Collection, based at Lincoln, includes the Rene Orchiston Collection, 50 traditional weaving varieties selected long ago from natural stands and cultivated by Māori weavers for their special leaf and fibre properties. There are varieties especially suited to making kete, whāriki, piupiu and cloaks.
We use the National Flax Collection to support research on traditional and new uses of harakeke, and also provide access and advice for iwi, wānanga and other members of the public.
Our research has included DNA fingerprinting to better understand the relationship of varieties in the Orchiston Collection, and recently we completed an assessment of leaf and fibre qualities of the Matthews Collection (ex-Dunedin). Genotyping revealed that some were clones of known weaving varieties, suggesting that valued types of harakeke were gifted and traded throughout New Zealand by Māori and early flaxmillers.
Nga Tipu Whakaoranga is a fully referenced database of information on how Māori used plants to survive in New Zealand, particularly before the arrival of Europeans. With 2400 records and many thousands of items of information, it includes some later Māori economic uses of native plants, as well as fungi and seaweeds, and some Pacific plants that have links to Māori culture.
We work closely with Tē Roopu Raranga Whatu o Aotearoa (the national Māori weavers association), individual weavers, schools, councils and wānanga from around the country to support and inform people about the cultivation, harvest and use of harakeke and other weaving plants.
We host visitors, provide extensive information online, and have a Facebook page with almost 2000 followers, where people can ask questions and share their stories and insights. We are currently updating our publication Insect Pests and Diseases of Harakeke.
In addition to our own harakeke research we support external work, including the Victoria University discovery of potentially valuable anti-fungal properties in harakeke, and a project to reduce the instances of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in Maori and Polynesian babies, through the use of wahakura (traditional Māori bassinets) woven by inmates at Christchurch Women’s Prison.
In the year to 31 July 2014, our Nga Tipu Whakaoranga website received 56,546 page views from 13,624 users, 25% of whom were return visitors.
Appreciated by stakeholders
At a time of growing interest in Mātauranga Māori, the National Flax Collection and Nga Tipu Whakaoranga, together with the skills and experience of our native plant experts, are highly valued by key stakeholders.
Tania Nutira, raranga (weaving) tutor at Tē Wānanga Aotearoa, appreciates the curatorship of “our wonderful weaving taonga”. “It is an extra bonus that the harakeke is made available to not only our local established raranga exponents, but to our raranga tauira (students) here at Tē Wānanga Aotearoa.
“I know that our tauira have also made use of the National Flax Collection website to gather information about the different flax cultivars. This is a wonderful website that is easily navigated and contains great information.”
Local iwi, Ngāi Tahu appreciates the benefits of combining their mātauranga Māori with Landcare Research knowledge when using native plants in a modern context. A spokesperson noted that our plant researchers have proven to be a valuable resource as Ngāi Tahu investigates development projects based around native species, and the Ngā Tipu Whakaoranga website provides easy access to valuable written historical observations and records of the use of native plants.