Tutu – The plant that poisoned a circus elephant

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


Kowhai – Our golden beauty

The golden flower of the kowhai (Sophora) is often called the national flower of New Zealand and becomes abundant during spring time. We love to have these beautiful trees growing in our gardens, especially as their nectar attracts native birds such as tui and bellbird. Sophora is an arabian name meaning tree with pea shaped flowers and kowhai is a maori word meaning yellow. Some of the eight native species found growing throughout the country are deciduous and lose their tiny feathery grey green leaves each winter, which is unusual in New Zealand natives as most retain their leaves year round. The beauty of kowhai means it is often depicted in art and has been used on postage stamps and coins.

Maori recognised kowhai as an important plant as the wood is tough and very hardy. It was crafted into paddles and adzes and early settlers used the wood for fence posts and tool handles. These days kowhai wood is highly valued by woodturners as it is perfect for fine turning and has a beautiful grain and colour.  Maori are said to have regulated the planting of potatoes by the flowering time of the kowhai and yellow dye was also extracted from the petals.

Kowhai bark was used medicinally by Maori for a variety of purposes. An infusion of bark was mixed with wood ashes, dried out, then rubbed on skin for treatment of skin rashes. The bark was crushed and steeped in boiling water and the liquid used to bathe severe bruises and newly set fractures. Kowhai leaves were also used in this way to bathe wounds, the bruised leaves then covered the wound like a bandage. However, all parts of the kowhai plant are considered poisonous if ingested.


Brooker et al. (1981) New Zealand Medicinal Plants. Auckland: Heinemann Publishers.

Macdonald, C. (1974) Medicines of the Maori. Auckland: William Collins (New Zealand) Ltd.

Photo Source:

Brendon Gloistein

Ti Kouka or Cabbage Tree

Ti Kouka or cabbage tree (Cordyline australis) is one of the most distinctive and beautiful trees in our landscape. The flowers produce a gorgeous scent in early summer and produce blue-white berries that birds love to eat.  When it does flower, Maori say that it is a sign of a good summer. This tree is very special to me, we had many dotted across our property and my parents named our farm “Waitahanui” which means “stream where the cabbage tree grow”. Ti Kouka became the inspiration for most of the art that I have created.

Ti kouka is another native that Maori had a rich knowledge of and has a long history as a source of food, fibre and medicine. Ti kouka was particularly important as a source of food in the South Island, where it was cultivated in areas where other crops would not grow. The root, stem and crown were all eaten as they provided a good source of starch and sugar. Early settlers also used the young leaves from the centre of the top of the tree as a substitute for cabbage, hence the common name.

The tough weatherproof leaves were woven to create baskets, sandals and rain capes. The fibre was extremely useful as it did not shrink in water, therefore the leaves made ideal anchor ropes. Fishing nets made from harakeke were also strengthened using ti kouka leaves.

Ti Kouka were planted by Maori to mark trails, boundaries, urupa (cemeteries) and birth places, as the tree tends to live for a long period of time. The trunk is fire-resistant so early European settlers used it to make chimneys but the old leaves make excellent fire kindling (I can vouch for this, my parents frequently use bundles of ti kouka leaves to light their fire). Maori also used the leaves to make a tea to treat diarrhoea and leaves were also rubbed to soften them and applied to cuts, sores and cracks in the skin. Beer was brewed from the root of the tree by europeans settlers and was popular amongst whalers and sealers.

The ability of ti kouka to store water allows it to endure harsh environmental conditions and this resilience is why it is often the last native species to survive on cleared land. These days ti kouka are one of the most widely cultivated New Zealand natives not only in New Zealand but around the world.


Brooker et al. (1981) New Zealand Medicinal Plants. Auckland: Heinemann Publishers.

Cambie, R. C., & Ferguson, L. R. (2003). Potential functional foods in the traditional Maori diet. Mutation Research: Fundamental & Molecular Mechanisms Of Mutagenesis523/524:109

Macdonald, C. (1974) Medicines of the Maori. Auckland: William Collins (New Zealand) Ltd.

Toetoe vs. Pampas Grass – How to tell the difference?

Toetoe is a New Zealand native and pampas grass is originally from South America.  But before I started this blog post I had no idea how to tell the difference between the two! The two introduced pampas grass Cortaderia species from South America, are very similar in appearance to toetoe, but are a troublesome weed in some parts of New Zealand.

Troublesome pampas

Pampas grass is considered an invasive weed in some areas, as it takes over the native toetoe habitat and suppresses other native plants preventing native regeneration. It is able to reach far away open spaces quickly and grows very rapidly. It also causes problems for agricultural production, smothering forestry seedlings in planted forests.

So for those of you who like myself want to know how to distinguish between toetoe and pampas grass then here is how:

  • Pampas leaves snap easily when you give them a firm tug. Toetoe leaves do not snap readily.
  • Toetoe leaf sheaths which are the base of the flowering stems, have a white waxy surface and have obvious veins between the midrib and leaf edge whereas pampas leaf sheaths do not.
  • Toetoe is a more open plant than pampas.
  • Dead pampas leaves hang down forming spirals and the mature plants often have dead leaves surrounding the base, which look like wood shavings. Toetoe leaves droop, but do not form spirals.
  • Pampas flower heads are dense and fluffy, ranging in colour from white to purple. Toetoe has drooping flower heads and a cream colored plume.
  • Pampas flowers in the autumn and toetoe flowers during spring and summer.

So now you know!

The beauty of the toetoe (toitoi)

Toetoe (Cortaderia spp.) commonly misspelt as toitoi, is the largest and most beautiful of our native grasses, often depicted in artwork and jewellery, its elegant pale feathery plumes which sit atop stiff brown stems are easily recognized. An iconic part of the New Zealand landscape, toe toe grows across the country but is most likely to been seen near the sea coast.

Maori traditionally used toe toe for a variety of purposes. Toetoe leaves were used to line walls and in roof thatching and also to create baskets, mats and containers to cook food in hot springs. The flower stalks were used for kite frames and in tukutuku paneling.

The feathery flower heads were used to filter the seeds from the juice of tutu berries as they are extremely poisonous. The berries were crushed and then strained through the flower heads to yield the sweet juice.

Toetoe also had a variety of traditional medicinal uses; in cases of severe burns, a combination of water and ashes from the powdered charcoal of toetoe were made into a paste and used to cover the burnt areas. For diarrhoea the lower parts of the young leaves were eaten and for problems with kidneys, adults chewed and swallowed the young stems. The feathery plumes also had important uses; when stripped from their stems and packed against wounds, they aided in stemming the flow of bleeding.

These days toetoe have valuable uses, primarily in helping to revegetate slips, to provide shelter in exposed conditions, to minimise stream bank erosion, and is sometimes planted to help provide sand dune stability.


Macdonald, C. (1974) Medicines of the Maori. Auckland: William Collins (New Zealand) Ltd.

Brooker et al. (1981) New Zealand Medicinal Plants. Auckland: Heinemann Publishers.

Horopito: Red Leaves, Hot Taste? Interesting Podcast!

I have often wondered why some horopito leaves are splotched with red, yet others remain green.. Is there a purpose to having these different coloured leaves?

Here is a really interesting podcast from the Our Changing World show on Radio New Zealand National that answers my question.

A chemist from Plant and Food Research and the University of Otago, and a Victoria University plant physiologist talk to Alison Ballance about their newly published scientific paper, which contains some really interesting findings regarding whether the redness of horopito leaves is related to their hotness.

Horopito: Red Leaves, Hot Taste


Here is the paper they are referring to:

Cooney, L. J., van Klink, J. W., Hughes, N. M., Perry, N. B., Schaefer, H. M., Menzies, I. J. and Gould, K. S. (2012), Red leaf margins indicate increased polygodial content and function as visual signals to reduce herbivory in Pseudowintera colorata. New Phytologist, 194: 488–497.

Horopito Bush Pepper: The new chilli

I have always been fascinated with native edible plants so it seems fitting to focus this last installment about the story of horopito around the use of horopito leaves in cooking. Horopito has a long history of use in Maori food and now interestingly enough this flavour has entered modern cuisine.

Horopito has a hot spicy flavour that slowly grows stronger and is used as an alternative to pepper or chilli. It is used to smoke fish, as a seasoning, an infusion for olive oil, a rub for meat, fish and vegetables, or to add to sauces and marinades.

A couple of years ago the head of Maori research at Crop & Food in Palmerston North was leading a million-dollar research programme looking into the use of traditional Maori foods in contemporary cuisine. The programme explored the flavours of native New Zealand plants with the hope of continuing the movement that has seen native plants like horopito appearing on the menus of upmarket restaurants. Interesting stuff!

I have found a few recipes using horopito leaves, but this one from the NZ Herald looks delicious as I love hummus!

Horopito Hummus

Makes 170g
Time: Six minutes to prepare but best when refrigerated for 2-3 hours.

A good pinch of salt
Horopito pepper
Clove of garlic
2 teaspoons of oil
170g of your favourite prepared hummus

1 Add a pinch of salt and horopito pepper to the oil and whisk well.

2 Heat the oil mixture gently for about 5 minutes. This releases the citric flavours and aromatic oils from the horopito pepper. Cool to room temperature.

3 Pour the horopito infused oil into the prepared hummus and stir it through until well mixed.

4 Cover the hummus and refrigerate, allowing the horopito pepper to infuse for 2-3 hours.

5 For a smoother consistency, slowly drizzle in more oil to taste.

Here is a link to where you can purchase Horopito pepper:


Photo Source: Pseudowintera colorata