Our native pantry

As we scatter round the country on our summer holidays I thought it might be fun to let you know about some of our native wild food plants.

The native spinach, Tetragonia tetragonioides, is a useful plant in the vege garden over the summer as it tolerates hot, dry conditions when other Spinacea species are prone to bolt.

Native plant expert Mark Dean of Oropi, who founded the renowned Naturally Native nursery, says the easy-to-grow scrambling plant was included in salads and broths for Captain James Cook and his crew of British explorers and has been cultivated in New Zealand since 1809. The Terrain website says that for two centuries it was the only cultivated vegetable in England to have originated from New Zealand or Australia.

Native spinach, pictured at Te Puna Quarry Park’s herb garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Naturally Native website (which includes a recipe) says it can be eaten in much the same way as English spinach. Pick it when you need it though, as the leaves will wilt within a couple of hours.

The plant is also native in Australia (and Japan, Chile and Argentina!) and this interesting article wonders why it hasn’t been recorded as being a staple part of the Aboriginal diet in the Botany Bay area – a mistake by the locals or a mistake by ethnobotanists?

Cook was a great experimenter with foods in his determination to beat scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency that in the 18th century killed more British sailors than enemy action. Although Cook spent three years at sea in the Endeavour, there was not a single death due to scurvy.

Native celery growing just above the tide line on Tiritiri Matangi Island in the Hauraki Gulf. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Apium prostratum or native celery is another plant used by the English explorer. It has thick, grooved stems and a thick, deep taproot and can be found growing wild along the coast. The leaves and stems are able to be eaten raw or cooked and the seeds can be used for flavouring.

Cook’s scurvy grass, Lepidium oleraceum, was thought to have been grazed to extinction until a significant colony was discovered on an island off the coast of Waikato in 2006 – the link at the start of this paragraph notes that 11 new species have recently been identified, although that doesn’t make the plant any less threatened! Here’s another article about the plant and some of the threats it faces.


Cook’s scurvy grass grows in the Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Other native wild foods include native cress (Rorippa divaricata), puha (Sonchus oleraceus, a member of the sow thistle family) and horopito (Pseudowintera colorata). Find a pork and puha recipe here (watercress can be substituted.)


Horopito is a useful ornamental garden plant too. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Horopito was used by Maori as a herbal medicine but more recently has been promoted in its dried form as a substitute for pepper or chilli in foods.

It’s also a useful ornamental plant to brighten up a shady corner. It will grow in deep shade but the more light the plant gets, the brighter its red splotches. The Red Leopard hybrid has a deep-red colour that is maintained well in shade.

Native spinach seeds are available from Kings Seeds in Katikati or Yates; native celery plants from Oratia Native Plant Nursery and horopito from garden centres.

This article was first published in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission. It has been updated.


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