• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

How to eat a New Zealand forest, and other secrets

Robert Vennell. Photo/Simon Young/Listener

Our native forests provide food and natural medicines, support jobs, hinder erosion and play a major role in climate-change mitigation.

Robert Vennell could have called his book “How to Eat a Forest”. That was the plan in 2017, when the Auckland Museum natural science collection manager set out to record what is palatable, what is passable and what is poisonous in our native bush.

“I wanted to find out what plants you could eat, in case I ever got lost out in the woods,” he says. “So I set myself a goal to eat my way through the forest, setting off on little treasure hunts and listing the best native berries, shoots and roots. It is surprising how much there is to eat.”

Vennell has a lifelong passion for forests and spent his childhood building forts out of nīkau fronds, trying to catch eels with lancewood spears, drinking the nectar of harakeke flowers and soaking up stories of survival in the wild. As an adult, while researching the impact of wild pigs on our forests, he’d camp in remote areas of the Waitākere and Hunua ranges, surviving on edible leaves, berries, roots and shoots.

His new book, The Meaning of Trees, provides a menu of indigenous bush kai: the kōata of the tī kōuka/cabbage tree; the nutritious flesh of the karaka berry (but not the poisonous kernel); the ripe berries of the poroporo; the kernels of the tawa, roasted, steamed or left to pop like popcorn over an open fire. Just as raw broccoli snapped off its stem may not get the taste buds tingling, Vennell learnt to make tasty dishes from commonplace forest foods: sautéed wood-ear mushrooms with a side of roasted mamaku and bush asparagus, upside-down pudding with kahakaha berries and horopito hot chocolate.

RelatedArticlesModule - Robert Vennell meaning of trees

Other trees are valued for their suitability for carving, weaving and rongoā (medicinal uses). Vennell lists the sedative properties of kawakawa, a cousin to kava; the anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic properties of horopito; the many health benefits of koromiko leaves (they were jarred up and packed off to the Māori Pioneer Battalion in Egypt in World War I – the Russian army later requested seeds from the Christchurch Botanic Gardens); and the much-lauded properties of mānuka honey. And he salutes the towering reputations of our rākau rangitira, or chiefly trees: kauri, reportedly used as masts by Britain’s Royal Navy ships during the Napoleonic Wars; kahikatea, its pale, odourless timber used for butter and cheese boxes; mataī; miro; the single trunk of a tōtara, which could be made into waka capable of carrying 100 warriors.

The great forests of Tāne provided everything to sustain life, says Vennell. They were a supermarket, chemist, garden centre, hunting ground, hardware store and playground.

“Trees are awesome creatures in our landscape and we have used them in all sorts of different ways: economically, scientifically and spiritually.”

Still, he says, many of us suffer from what he calls “plant blindness”.

“Plants are on the back foot when it comes to getting people’s attention and enthusiasm. This book was a way of getting people excited about trees and seeing them as valuable. You have to know about things before you care about them, right?”

Some of the earliest Europeans did care about them. They built huts out of nīkau and raupō leaves, slept on mattresses of mangemange, relieved pain with horopito, resorted to using rangiora leaves as “bushman’s toilet paper” when caught short, and toasted the bounty of the forest with wine made from tutu berries.

Pōhutukawa, hīnau and pūriri flowers. Images/Fanny Osborne/Auckland War Memorial Museum

Slash and burn

As more settlers arrived, many saw little of value in our dense, damp bush. “They saw this dreary rainforest and were eager to cut it down and get that typical manicured pasture,” says Vennell.

Which they did with gusto. In New Zealand, before humans arrived, forests covered about 80% of the country. By the end of the last century, this had been whittled down to just over a quarter, concentrated on the conservation estate, on private land or saved in remnant patches on public reserves. And still it goes on. Between 1996 and 2012, we lost more than 70,000ha of native vegetation through conversion to pasture, plantation forestry and urban areas.

“We call ourselves ‘Kiwis’,” a recent Environment Aotearoa report states, “and proudly use the silver fern (ponga) as a national symbol, so our identity suffers when we experience damaged or lost native species and ecosystems.”

In cities, our identity must be taking a battering. Since changes to the Resource Management Act in 2012, more than 12,000 trees have been cut down in Auckland alone. An Auckland Council report shows a total of 61ha of tree canopy lost from the Waitematā Local Board area over the 10 years to 2016 – nothing short, says Forest & Bird chief executive Kevin Hague, of a chainsaw massacre.

Even our fabled Christmas tree, the pōhutukawa, is not safe. If it blocks our view, it’s dead. Over the past two years, many have been poisoned, hacked back or simply felled. Last November, a row of beachfront pōhutukawa in Kerikeri were drilled and poisoned. In Tongaporutu, north Taranaki, a pōhutukawa planted by two air-force veterans as a symbol of their friendship, in 1951, was drilled and poisoned.

Giant kauri Tāne Mahuta. Photo/Getty Images

Threats everywhere

Less-covert attacks on our native forests are being staged by an army of stoats, rats, feral goats, deer and possums. As this year’s “mega-mast”, or bumper crop of forest seeds, gets under way, the Department of Conservation (DoC) is preparing to launch its massive, two-year $38 million predator-control programme, including a 1080 aerial drop covering 900,000ha. A further $19.5 million of funding has been announced for alternative pest-control methods such as traps, lures, remote sensors and surveillance.

Last year, kauri dieback was found in a tree just 60m from Tāne Mahuta, our largest known living kauri, in Waipoua Forest. Earlier this year, myrtle rust, a fungal disease affecting rātā, mānuka, pōhutukawa and other species, was discovered on the West Coast of the South Island for the first time.

But as we rush to contend with each new threat to our native forests (34 kauri forest tracks have been permanently closed by  DoC and a further 186 have been identified for possible upgrade or closure), others are calling for change in the way we manage land altogether.

Our current approach, says David Hall, a senior researcher with Auckland University of Technology’s policy observatory, follows the traditional view of land use: conservation forests, which are managed under a “look but don’t touch” system; exotic commercial forests, usually Pinus radiata, which are managed on a 30-year clear-cut rotation basis; and pastoral agriculture.

This approach, he writes, in his 2018 discussion paper “The Interwoven World”, compartmentalises the landscape “and intensifies the functions within each compartment”. He advocates an integrated landscape approach, mixing different land uses to meet the demands of climate mitigation alongside those of sustainability and resilience.

This requires mixing forest and pastoral land and reducing our reliance on monocultures and clear-cutting to include diverse continuous-cover forests “that are nevertheless still economically viable”.

If we think of forestry only in terms of climate mitigation, it tends to prioritise fast-growing exotic trees that are not necessarily resilient over the long run,” says Hall. “If you think of what sort of forests future generations are going to want in a warming world, they will want those that are most adaptive to a changing climate and probably ones that are multipurpose.”

Mānuka flowers. Photo/Getty Images

Community response

A more integrated approach is also being mooted as a way of reducing the spread of disease. The Biological Heritage Science Challenge, which includes universities, Crown research institutes, Te Tira Whakamātaki (the Māori Biosecurity Network) and regional councils, is developing a community response to the threat of myrtle rust. Key to this approach, says leadership group member Nick Waipara, is the understanding that environmental health is not just about science, “it is about people, culture and different world views about forests, ecosystems and the planet”.

“When you think about kauri dieback and myrtle rust disease,” says Waipara,  “you want ecologists, soil scientists, hydrologists and plant pathologists as well as social scientists and traditional-knowledge holders. We don’t have a biosecurity officer in every town any more, we don’t have DoC rangers in every forest, or research substations in all sorts of small places, so we need the community involved in surveillance.

“Already you have intergenerational eyes and ears that have always known these seasonal shifts and bioindicators of health. It is the locals: the kaitiaki, the gardener, the grower, the pig hunter. It was a pig hunter who found kauri dieback in the Coromandel; he knew the symptoms and reported it. Those observational views can all add to the science. Predator free 2050? That is not going to be realised unless we have the public doing that.”

How to build public support

As schools, trusts and councils throw their collective weight behind new planting and nature-restoration projects, Landcare Research ecologist Colin Meurk thinks there need to be more opportunities for people living in cities to experience nature.

“If native species do not enter into the consciousness of the majority of the population on a daily basis, there will be no ownership or support of it,” he says.

“Indigenous nature in New Zealand will remain or become ever more enigmatic, conserved in national parks and reserves, isolated from the degrading productive landscape.”

Karaka berries. Photo/Alamy

Meurk is one of the people behind a proposed Waitākiri ecosanctuary, linking 50ha of Christchurch’s red-zoned land along the Ōtākaro/Avon River with the existing Travis Wetland to form a 180ha predator-proofed eco-sanctuary. At the heart of his proposal is a simple dictum: to avoid further loss of our native species and habitats, we must save what is left.

“Even some of those roadside remnants along fence lines, because they have not been cultivated, retain some of the original soil structure and there will be an occasional matagouri or coprosma hanging in there, a ghost of the former ecosystem. We need to grow those remnants, expand them, buffer them, protect them.”

The flow-on effects of such protection are becoming ever more evident. A new study from the UK, including research by University of Auckland ecologist Margaret Stanley, shows everyday access to nature in our cities provides a range of health and well-being benefits, including improved cognitive function and concentration and reduced healing times and work stress.

The ancient Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” is finding its way into self-help manuals and science journals as new research shows that those who spend time in forests have less stress and a stronger immune system.

Our native fauna is also integral to the way we present ourselves to the world. As Vennell writes, we put images of our native plants on postcards, artworks, sports jackets, military uniforms, government branding and banknotes. They have permeated our culture “and become integral to a shared New Zealand identity and the subject of new research into new medicines, foods, alcohol and cosmetics”.

New Zealand’s native plants are still facing down hordes of introduced pests, weeds and disease, says Vennell. And although the road ahead is not easy, “the first step is realising what we have”.

THE MEANING OF TREES, by Robert Vennell (HarperCollins, $55)

This article was first published in the July 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.