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 As a result, the export trade of hakeke from Aotearoa to China has been replaced by importation of hakeke from China and other Asian countries where it is now commercially cultivated.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.