Maori gardening in pre-European NZ

Horticulture was integral to pre-European Maori culture. As Bee Dawson states in “A history of gardening in New Zealand”, the ability to produce reliable garden crops influenced the settlement patterns of early Maori. Thus, the warmer areas of the North Island, particularly those with fertile volcanic soils, supported much larger populations than those further south where both climate and terrain made horticulture less viable. The northern two-thirds of the North Island proved most rewarding in terms of horticultural production, while Banks Peninsula in the South Island marked the southern limit of Maori horticulture. In the southern part of the South Island, Maori relied instead on bracken fern root [see the earlier post: Weeds – the great European invasion] and cabbage trees (Cordyline australis, Ti kouka in Maori) as sources of starch, to supplement protein derived from hunting, fishing and gathering.

Early reports from European explorers noted that Maori gardens were about 0.5–5 hectares in size, on sunny, north-facing slopes, and were communally owned and worked. Kumara (sweet potato) was the main crop, and could be grown throughout the northern and coastal North Island, and in the northern South Island. Four other important food plants – taro, yam, gourd and ti pore (Pacific cabbage tree) – were confined to northern gardens.

Before planting, Maori cleared and burned forest, and prepared the ground. Soils were enhanced and modified using various means. Charcoal and ash (from burning plants such as manuka) were added to increase fertility, while shell, sand and shingle were added to heavy loam and clay soils to improve consistency and optimise warmth. Stones were also used to provide shelter for seedlings and create a hot-house effect. Ditches and drains were dug around gardens, probably both to demarcate boundaries and drain water away. (These ditches and stone rows, in addition to  terracing, provide the main archaeological evidence of historical Maori horticulture at a site.) Reed or manuka-brush fences were built to protect crops from marauding pukeko (pictured).

A site was used for gardens for two to six years and then left fallow for several years, during which time a cover of fast-growing native shrubs developed. Unlike later European gardens, pre-European Māori gardens were not plagued with weeds. New Zealand’s native flora does not include weedy annuals or biennial plants that invade cultivated soils. If any tropical weeds arrived with the ancestors of Māori, they did not survive in New Zealand’s temperate climate. [See also: Weeds – the great European invasion ]

Photo top left: Young Maori girl at Te Ariki Pa, near Lake Tarawera, Bay of Plenty. Shows her standing alongside a vegetable garden and a whare. Photograph taken in the 1880s by the Burton Brothers. Not to be reproduced without prior permission from Alexander Turnbull Library ref. 1/2-004619-F. Bottom right: a Maori garden marauder – the pukeko.

Sources/more information: A history of gardening in New Zealand (2010),  by Bee Dawson, Te Ara Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

11 thoughts on “Maori gardening in pre-European NZ

  1. Hemi June 20, 2015 / 8:55 pm

    Is it true they never watered their crops regardless of how close a water source was?

    • Harry.K.Ponga December 12, 2015 / 3:18 pm

      We did Hemi…..44gal drums on a sledge towed by a couple of draught horses….the Wairoa river was close by our gardens. .nice silty soil. .
      We grew 15acres of Kumara.Spuds. watermelon. Pumpkin . and sweetcorn…in total about 25acres…..
      Most of the produce was sold to Dalgetys.H.B.Farmers. Loan and Mercantile…I was only about 8yrs old at the time…..
      All the neighborhood came to help out and all got a share. …

      • Anonymous May 5, 2023 / 5:28 pm

        This was pre-european? I don’t think so.

  2. Hemi June 20, 2015 / 8:57 pm

    A Seagull kept near the garden on a pooria bird ring to keep grubs at bay

  3. Anonymous December 12, 2015 / 5:25 pm

    Looks like European clothing to me

    • Anonymous December 13, 2015 / 7:33 pm

      It says the picture was taken in the 1880’s so they would be European clothes.

  4. Kumera King July 22, 2016 / 2:25 am

    No mention of the kumera variety? The big purple/red variety in NZ, came via an American whaling Captain in the early to mid 1800s who brought sweet potatoe from Bolivia/Peru on way to NZ. Before that, the kumera variety was quite small slightly larger than thumb size …. A bit like an Aussie Kippler potatoe. The sudden introduction of the larger kumera type, radically changed Maori crop farming in a positive way. It boomed!!

  5. Natalie Leary July 1, 2017 / 7:41 pm

    I am interested how kumera was grown in the sth island considering the cold weather. Some say stones were used to keep the heat in. I have visualised this in a number of ways. Does anyone know how? I also have many questions about traditional maori planting. One at a time.

    • envirohistorynz July 1, 2017 / 7:46 pm

      Hi Natalie, have you read Bee Dawson’s “A history of gardening in New Zealand”? That may have the answers to your questions. Also Te Ara Online Encyclopedia of NZ is often a good source of this sort of information, including lists of other useful sources. Good luck! Catherine @ envirohistoryNZ

  6. Anonymous October 17, 2018 / 4:52 pm

    Not many Pacific plants would grow in the cold climate of Aotearoa, and the Maori population grew explosively after their first arrival, which would put a lot of pressure on the land’s resources. Wouldn’t this result in War and Conquest?

    • Anonymous May 28, 2020 / 9:12 am

      My simplistic understanding of precolonial maori economics is that generous trading and gift giving earned respect and status. Mana, prestige or power was achieved by generous economic interactions between people and communities. This strikes me as a more stable basis for an economic system compared to ours which puts every single human and entity in the biosphere in competition with every other entity. We are atomised, divided and perpetually at war with one another.

      Our Polynesian ancestors had a deep scientific understanding of natural phenomena that sustained their lives and guided their voyages. Over many generations Maori adapted to life in Aotearoa, as our knowledge of the ecology of the whenua expanded and our horticultural practises improved. Tikanga Maori was developed to guide the actions of our people in a way that honoured and protected ecological systems and also enhanced primary production. The Maori maramataka calendar marks annual seasons and lunar months. It offers unrivalled and in-depth knowledge of how the moon affects ecological process in a specific New Zealand setting. This knowledge is used to guide horticultural work, hunting and fishing and synchronises the rhythm of human activities with the pace of the ecosystem.

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