An interactive that shows how early Māori used different fungi for food and medicine.
Tāne-mahuta is an important source of food, with different foods collected at different times of the year. Fungi mostly form their fruitbodies in autumn or early winter. Our ancestors knew which fungi tasted good and knew also to eat only those that weren’t poisonous. They also knew how to identify them and where to find them. Some of these edible fungi were also used for rongoā.
Only some of the fungi known as edible to our ancestors are shaped like mushrooms with a stalk and cap. Others have different shapes – for example, looking like an animal ear or as hanging coral or even like an egg.
Click on the fungi name in the interactive to learn about how our ancestors used them and where different fungi are usually found.
This resource has been adapted from Ngā Hekaheka o Aotearoa, a science/pūtaiao guide for teachers written by Dr Peter Buchanan, Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research; Dr Georgina Stewart, Te Kura Mātauranga School of Education, AUT University; and Hēni Jacob. These resources have been written from a Māori world view.
The Science Learning Hub would like to acknowledge Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research and the writers for their permission and help to adapt this publication for the web. An electronic version of this teacher guidebook is available to download from Huia Publishers.
Background photo copyright Pilens, 123RF Ltd.
Te pūtawa, Laetiporus portentosus (pūtawa)
The pūtawa fungus feeds on the wood of living beech trees in Tāne-mahuta. Its fruitbodies are bracket shaped and often form high up on trunks. They grow quickly to a large size, but only last a few weeks to months before becoming old and falling. When collected on the ground, they need to be dried out before they can be used.
For medical use, pūtawa was cut into flexible strips and used to surround and protect wounds. A hole larger than the wound was cut in the strip, and the pūtawa was tied in place as a protective pad.
You can learn more about our ancestors’ use of this fungi in Māori knowledge and use of fungi.
IMAGE: Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research
Fungus icicles, Hericium sp. (pekepekekiore)
Pekepekekiore has soft and fragile fruitbodies that look like hanging coral or icicles.
This fungus feeds on dead wood, and its fruitbodies form only on softened, well rotted trees. There are few reports of our ancestors eating pekepekekiore, but a closely related fungus in Asia is widely eaten. Hericium erinaceus is a delicious and popular mushroom grown on sawdust in several Asian countries. Small trials have recently started in Hawke’s Bay to cultivate pekepekekiore for restaurants.
Recent research suggests that Hericium sp. may have potential as an extract for modern medicines and health. A summary of this research can be found in the article Antibacterial mushrooms.
They were featured on a NZ$1.30 stamp in 2004.
Look for this delicate fungus, the pekepekekiore, especially in large, old rotten logs in the forest.
IMAGES: Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research
Usnea species, (angiangi, hawa)
A number of lichens (fungi) and mosses (plants) were collected by our ancestors for use as a soft covering for wounds and to stop bleeding. Angiangi and hawa are names that may refer to several different kinds of lichens and mosses found in Tāne-mahuta.
A lichen is a fungus that has partnered with tiny cells of algae. The fungus gives a home to these plant cells that can use light to produce sugars for use by both the algae and the fungus. So lichens can live in harsh places, even on concrete footpaths, fence posts, and roads, where neither the fungus nor the algae could live on their own. Mosses are not fungi at all. They are plants.
Look for lichens on fence posts, power poles, footpaths and roads. Lichens can occur even in these harsh environments, but angiangi is only found in forests.
IMAGE: Mikey Watson, CC BY-NC 4.0
Flower fungus, Aseroe rubra (puapuatai)
Looks pretty, smells awful! This bright red fungus looks like a flower or maybe a starfish? It is found on the ground in Tāne-mahuta and probably was not eaten often. When fully formed, the red arms of puapuatai are covered at their base by a dark-coloured slime that smells like rotten meat – this is one of the stinkhorn fungi. The slime attracts flies that feed on it and so spread the spores. It is likely that puapuatai was only eaten in its young egg-like stage before the egg hatches and the smelly red arms expand.
Today, puapuatai is not common, but a related red stinkhorn fungus has become common on mulch in home and public gardens. This also has red arms and a bad smell. It is not native to Aotearoa, however, and is probably not edible.
Why do you think the fruitbody of this fungus, the puapuatai, is red and has long petals or arms?
IMAGE: A photo of puapuatai on a 90c stamp from 2004. Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research.
Wood ear, Auricularia cornea (hakeke, hakeka)
Fruitbodies of hakeke grow on wood and look like a thin soft rubbery ear. There is no stalk or gills. Instead, the upper surface of the ear is hairy, and the spores form on the smooth lower surface. In Tāne-mahuta, hakeke is common on many different kinds of dead wood, like tawa and māhoe, and can be collected during spring, summer and autumn. When old, it dries out and becomes hard. Its taste is not much, though it does have a soft crunch when cooked and eaten. It was often cooked with vegetables and other foods to give it flavour. It is thought that this was only eaten when other foods were scarce as is suggested by a waiata recorded by Sir George Grey in Ko nga moteatea, me nga hakirara o nga Maori in 1853.
A song about famine
What, what shall we eat?
Wood ear fungus
that clings to the karaka
that stretches over the land?
Who will dig the convolvulus
in the winter?
Hakeke is the only fungus from Tāne-mahuta that has been collected and exported overseas. Our ancestors including women and children collected and dried it for the export fungus trade to China. It thus became an important source of income, especially from 1870–1900. From 1872–1883, almost 2,000 tons (dry weight) was exported – an enormous amount considering that hakeke loses 90% of its fresh weight on drying. Like tawaka, hakeke was also sometimes given to invalids who were “recovering from poisoning by karaka or tutu”.
In Chinese and Asian medicine, hakeke has multiple uses including for colds and fevers by reducing the heat of the body and to strengthen blood vessels and the cardiovascular system.
Forests in China also contain hakeke, and a method for cultivation was developed there on sawdust in bags. As a result, the export trade of hakeke from Aotearoa to China has been replaced by importation of hakeke from China and other Asian countries where it is now commercially cultivated. Today, it is rarely collected in Tāne-mahuta but is readily available in Aotearoa in Asian food shops.
Look for this fungus for sale in dried form, in Asian supermarkets for example.
IMAGE: Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research.
Poplar mushroom, Agrocybe parasitica (tawaka)
This large mushroom (up to dinner-plate size) grows on living tawa and other trees, often appearing high up on the tree trunk in late summer to autumn. The mushroom has a long stalk with a hanging skirt that is coloured brown because it is coated with brown spores. When the mushroom is young in the button stage, this skirt is also attached to the edge of the cap covering the brown gills.
In addition to its use as a food, cooked tawaka was also considered to have medicinal benefit, reportedly being given to patients suffering fever and for health of expectant mothers. Tawaka was also given to invalids who were “recovering from poisoning by karaka or tutu”.
On the other hand, there was an alleged negative impact of those who had eaten tawaka who then entered a garden growing gourd plants, apparently causing gourds to decay or fail to mature. Fishing success was also reduced for those who had consumed tawaka.
If you are interested in growing tawaka yourself, cultivation kits are currently available. Infected wooden dowels can be purchased for inoculation and growth of tawaka on poplar and plane tree logs at Mushroom Gourmet.
Please see the references in the box above, for the sources referred to here.
IMAGE: Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research.
Puffball, Lycoperdon utriforme and Calvatia gigantea (pukurau)
There are different kinds of pukurau, some growing in Tāne-mahuta and others on farmland. Their hyphae feed on plant matter in the soil. When the moisture and temperature is right, the puffball fruitbody grows rapidly above the soil surface – sometimes up to a very large size. Edible kinds were eaten when young and firm and when the inside of the puffball is white. Later, the inside part softens and turns brown and powdery as thousands of spores develop. The spores are spread in the wind after being puffed out of the puffball by the impact of raindrops or an animal.
Pukurau were also used by our ancestors in medicine, for example, to stop bleeding from wounds and for pain relief from scalds and burns.
Recent research suggests that Calvatia gigantea may have potential as an extract for modern medicines and health. Read more in Antibacterial mushrooms.
Pukurau grows widely in Aotearoa but may have been especially common around the Tukituki River in Hawke’s Bay. The name of the Hawke’s Bay town Waipukurau is linked to the fungus pukurau. Tūpuna tell of pukurau growing on a nearby hill pā. These were collected and taken to a pool known as Te Waipukurau-a-Ruakūhā to soften or treat the flesh.
Look carefully on farmland in autumn for the large football-sized puffballs. They grow to a large size rather quickly.
IMAGE: Examples of large and small puffball varieties. Ross Beaver and inset image, Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research.
Basket fungus, Ileodictyon cibarium (matakupenga, kōpurawhetū, tūtaewhatitiri, whareatua)
Once seen and smelt, this fungus is not forgotten! It is another stinkhorn fungus like puapuatai. It was collected by our ancestors when young and like an egg, but only the outer part was eaten. Later, it opens to become like a white basket or net. A smelly slime on the inside of the net attracts flies that then spread the spores.
Our ancestors in different parts of Aotearoa had over 35 different names for this fungus, suggesting that it was well known. Some names like tūtaewhatitiri refer to its apparent sudden appearance after thunder storms – Whatitiri is a name of our thunder god. In the South Island, whareatua – house of the devil – was linked to its net-like appearance.
If you find a basket fungus in good condition, hold your nose, and blow up a round balloon inside the basket. Tie off the balloon, and let the basket dry against the balloon. Then pop and remove the balloon, and see if your friends can guess what your net-like hollow ball is.
IMAGES: Te kōpurawhetū and the former children’s climbing frame from Hagley Park, Christchurch. Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research.
Honey Mushroom, Armillaria novae-zelandiae (harore)
This fungus feeds on wood and forms its edible mushrooms mostly on different kinds of fallen wood such as tawa and tawai or at the base of dead trees.
It appears in late autumn to early winter and can often be collected in large numbers throughout Aotearoa. Its white mycelium may be seen under the bark of affected wood as the wood rots. It also forms black bootlace-like cords under the bark and growing out through soil and can use these to grow to a new source of food.
Recent records indicate that some Tūhoe continue to collect this as a food in Te Urewera. Maybe this mushroom could also be cultivated on logs or sawdust as a wild food?
There is more than one species of Armillaria in Aotearoa, and at least some, such as Armillaria limonea, are bitter in taste and not edible. Distinguishing words in te reo Māori for these fungi of similar appearance but inferior use are not known.
The word harore is used in three senses – it is the name of this widely eaten edible mushroom, it is commonly used as a generic word for mushrooms whether edible or not and it can also mean a generic term for fungi in science classification (though hekaheka is the standard word for this purpose).
The weak glow of harore (known as bioluminescence) was discovered in 2015 by a photographer who travels the world photographing fungi. But did our ancestors know this already? Wood decayed by harore sometimes glows at night because the hyphae of harore can be bioluminescent. Bioluminescent mushrooms, however, have not been recorded for any other species of Armillaria elsewhere in the world, so this discovery in Aotearoa was unexpected.
IMAGES: The mushroom Armillaria limonea that lives on wood, here photographed using a flashlight and in darkness using its own light (bioluminescence). Taylor Lockwood.