Graeme Hill reviews one man’s mission to eat all of the native plants of New Zealand and not die of turpentine poisoning.

Robert Vennell’s book The Meaning of Trees is a lovely leafy avenue winding elegantly through botany, evolution, craft, history, music, medicine, mythology, and food, lots of food. It carries a slightly oldee worldee feeling with its liberal use of 19th century botanical drawings with 21st century photography. It’s lyrical. There are no maps. There are no graphs, but it doesn’t skimp on science.

When reading the preface you’ll come across the hilariously alarming claim: “I first started this journey to eat all of the native plants of New Zealand.” Hello, possum. Its true inspiration is traced back to a childhood experience and one that many a bush-loving kiddie has had: Let’s see if we can survive in the bush! How exciting. I gave this a lash over a long weekend as a kid in Maunu, Whangarei, with Michael Hall and Brian Doar, and vividly recall what hunger felt like, running, not walking, out of the bush into the kitchen late on the Sunday afternoon and devouring a Madeira cake with my bare hands. The moment is etched in my memory. I have never felt quite so hungry since.

Being lost in the New Zealand bush is a death sentence. You just can’t keep it up. So little carbohydrate. What a crushing disappointment it must have been for our earliest settlers to realise Nikau didn’t have coconuts. Not even close, and only a portion of the starchy-plant cargo brought here from their warmer homes coped, but it was enough to survive, adapt, trial, err, and eventually gain an intimate knowledge of the kaleidoscopic array of vegetation found here and largely only here. So how did Māori or anybody else for that matter, survive in the bush? This is nicely covered. Take supplies.

Miro leaves. Photo: Edin Whitehead

So what New Zealand bush plant food tastes nice? Any? I can vouch that Nikau pith is lovely, but it will kill the plant. I’ve often wondered about this. For centuries hardly anybody seems to have given a flying fuchsia about chopping down nearly every tree in sight, but Nikau, for food? Ooooh no. Best leave well alone. It kills the plant, y’see.

Fuchsia berries are OK but most of the others mentioned should say ‘massive turpentine backlash’ on the packet. It’s telling, too, that many positive mentions go no further than you can make a tea out of it (which, when you think about it, goes for almost anything), or soak it for ages and beat it into something semi digestible, or cook something which is actually nice in its vicinity and hope it doesn’t ruin it.

Kawakawa fruits come recommended ‘dipped in chocolate’. Yeah. That’ll take the edge off it.

Anyway, if you don’t have to, maybe just don’t. And unless you know exactly what you’re putting in your mouth, don’t. There’s wisdom in the author’s caveat that just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s good.

Harakeke. Photo: Edin Whitehead

It’s perplexing to me why plants are regarded as such a second-class Kingdom. Imagine the outrage if he’d wanted to eat his way through all the native animals of New Zealand. The fact is virtually all of New Zealand’s threatened plants remain unprotected. What protects them, if anything at all, is where they grow, not the species or how scarce they are. Even collectors have a huge impact and are significant players in the decline of many species. Wellington scurvy grass Lepidium obtusatum went out fast because it was a favoured collectors’ item and our endemic Mistletoes get yoinked off their host trees at Christmas for Christ’s sake. Stop it!

There are some cracking stories and grim depictions of our native nasties. Every Kiwi should know how to identify Tutu from a very early age. I’m surprised more people aren’t killed by the stuff because the berries are sweet, but for godsake don’t swallow the tiny seeds. ‘Foaming neuromuscular spasms’ doesn’t sound flash and the traditional Māori remedy isn’t much more appealing.

Then there’s the mad New Zealand plant with near military applications: Tree nettle. Ongaonga. Urtica ferox, the largest nettle on the planet. It bristles with a ridiculously excessive arsenal of hypodermic missiles. In the 1960s a man was stung to death and his buddy was severely traumatised. I may be out of line here but I suspect the third tramping partner may have been Jack Daniels because I’ve been stung plenty of times and cope okay. There’s a plant in my back yard and I like to go out late at night after few merlots for a bit of a fix just for old times’ sake.

There are many deep and broad stories behind this selection of plants both ordinary and spectacular and if you remember a quarter of what’s in this thing you’ll get so much more from any excursion into the bush or even your yard or local park. When taking a trip into our wild places I always wish DoC would chain a local botanist to the info sign. For 20 bucks you’d get the code to unchain them, feed them a biscuit, put them on a leash and off you go. The eye of a New Zealand botanist is an amazing thing. I’m yet to meet one who doesn’t wince when watching The Last Samurai, filmed in Taranaki. Weinmannia racemosa? In Japan?! Turn it up. To better picture the botanist’s agony just imagine watching Notting Hill shot in Kaikohe.

There’s no index.

The Meaning of Trees: The history and use of New Zealand’s native plants by Robert Vennell (HarperCollins, $55).

Graeme Hill is a broadcaster, writer, musician and nature nerd.

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