A plant with a dark tale…
Tutu (Coriaria arborea) has created alot of attention due to its poisonous properties. This shrub found growing throughout the country, usually on the edge of bush and alongside streams, is fairly easy to recognise with long arching stems and dark green shiny leaves arranged in opposite pairs.
The reason tutu is so poisonous is due to a toxin called tutin which is found in all parts of the plant except in the fleshy black, soft petals surrounding the seeds. Tutu has caused a high percentage of stock poisoning with sheep and cattle mostly affected.There is even a story of a circus elephant having died from eating tutu!
Tutin effects the central nervous system, leading to convulsions and breathing problems that can lead to death. Many children of early settlers died from eating the attractive black berries but there have been few cases of human poisoning since 1900, with rare cases of poisoning due to toxic honey, contaminated as a result of bees visiting tutu.
Maori used the juice of the berries, the only part not poisonous, and fermented it to create an alcoholic drink (tutu beer or tutu wine). They were very careful to strain out the poisonous seeds by using the fluffy flower heads of the toetoe as a sieve, which was supported in a funnel made of cabbage tree leaves. The berry juice was kept in gourds to ferment and sometimes seaweed was added to form a jelly. Bracken fern root was often flavoured with this juice or jelly and made into cakes. Sounds like an interesting dessert…
Maori used a tutu solution made by boiling the leaves or the bark, to bathe broken legs or bruises and for treating sprains, aching muscles, swollen joints and rheumatism.
Musical instruments were also made from the hollow stems of tutu, and the dark juice was used for tattooing.
Beware of these dark berries on your next journey into the forest..
Ford, W. (1910) On the toxicology of the tutu plant. The Journal of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics, 2:73-85