New Zealand proved to be surprisingly interesting as regards heritage vegetables. And I quickly learnt my limits when it came to gorging kiwifruits. But I will never get used to calling oca "yam".
Kiwifruit pruning takes a while to master, but Marty Robinson was the man to teach us. We’d decided to see out the remaining days of winter in Northland, New Zealand’s “Winterless North” and took the opportunity to do some WWOOFing at Kerikeri Organics, run by Marty and his wife Tina. In addition to hacking back the rampant growth, we learnt about “cracking” – realigning branches along the wires by a chiropractic-style manipulation - and the ratio of male to female plants required for effective pollination. Part payment for our efforts came in the form of vegetables from the farm shop and as many organic kiwifruit as we could eat, which is surprisingly few after the first ten.
We borrowed the ute (pick-up truck) one day to visit nearby Waitangi, where, in 1840, the British and many Maori chiefs signed the Treaty which is regarded as the foundation stone of the nation of New Zealand. Some Maoris believe that it has yet to be honoured properly by the Government. The Whare Runanga (Maori meeting house) and Waka (war canoe) are elaborately carved and powerful affirmations of the vigour and vitality of Maori culture. A waka full of Maori warriors with moko (facial tattoos) hurtling towards their enemies must have been a bloodcurdling sight. The many Maoris who gave us lifts while in Northland, the Maori heartland, seemed to be a friendly and affable lot by comparison.
We also took the opportunity to visit the enormous Kauri trees in Waipoua Forest. Extensively felled by the European settlers, Kauri (Agathis australis) covered huge areas of Northland. Thankfully some big trees survive, including Tane Mahuta, New Zealand’s biggest tree, which can only be described as awesome, not for its height so much as for its huge cylindrical trunk.
With spring on its way, we headed back down to Auckland. En route we stopped off at Kaiwaka in the Brynderwyn Hills, to meet Kay Baxter. Kay runs Koanga Gardens, a trust whose aim is to collect and preserve New Zealand heirloom plants, particularly vegetables and make them available to the public along with records of their use. Kay believes these plants are “Taonga”, that is a national treasure and should be treated accordingly. After a brief tour of the gardens on a particularly wet and windy day, Kay took us down to the seed room, a converted dairy, to view her treasures. If I had assumed that New Zealand was a bit of a desert when it came to the genetic diversity of its crops, I was clearly mistaken. Among the varieties Kay offers are: Dalmatian Cabbage, brought over by Yugoslavians who harvested Kauri gum and one of the few cabbages that can be grown for seed in Northland’s humid climate – most varieties rot; the King George Bean, stolen from the King’s garden by a thieving gardener and brought to New Zealand by his descendants; Maori Corn (maize) from Hokianga, traditionally used to make Kaanga Pirau, a fermented product, involving dunking the cobs in water for a few weeks; various tomatoes adapted to the New Zealand climate and Maori squashes like the exotic sounding Kumikumi.
It was the potatoes, however, that really caught my eye. Kay has a collection of about thirty varieties of “Riwai” or Maori potatoes of assorted colours and shapes. Many appear to be andigena types – knobbly with deepset eyes and flecked skins. Kay believes, as others do, that potatoes reached New Zealand prior to European colonisation. The mysterious Waitaha Nation, who supposedly established themselves on New Zealand over a thousand years ago, are credited with the introduction. Strangely, one of the varieties with purple skin and white eyes is traditionally known as “Peruperu”, perhaps a reflection of its country of origin. The possibility of a pre-European origin to the Riwai is being investigated by Graham Harris from the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand. Other types included “Karoro” a spud that somewhat resembled Lumpers and was eaten by Maoris when collecting and preserving muttonbirds (sooty shearwaters). One variety I did recognise – the old HSL favourite Urenika, with purple skin and flesh. This is considered by the Chatham Islanders to be a strongly “male” variety that impregnates other types and is grown apart to maintain varietal purity.
Kay also has several different varieties of “yams” as oca (Oxalis tuberosa) is known, somewhat confusingly, in New Zealand, as well as kumara, the sweet potato, in various colours. These old varieties of kumara had specific purposes; Kay told me that the large pink variety she unearthed for us was fed specifically to young children, invalids and the elderly; another type was a sacred plant “Taputini” that was grown in baskets then moved up rivers and trails as an offering to the gods. Others have exceptional flavour “like particularly good roasted chestnuts” and all are heirlooms, recently received by Kay from gardeners in Northland.
Our next stop was the Auckland suburb of Avondale, famed for its large spiders, which featured in the film “Arachnophobia” and its Polynesian market. We had come to see neither, but ended up encountering both. No, our destination was King’s Seeds, run by Ross King, who we had met at the Diggers Camp-out in Australia. Ross has one of the largest ranges of flower, herb and vegetable seeds available in New Zealand, including heirlooms and his catalogue is well known and has a good reputation amongst the gardeners we met. King’s Seeds also deals in essential oils and we spent a few pleasant and fragrant hours decanting these into 250 ml bottles. As a commercial operation, Ross stocks seeds of the varieties which sell and this made for an interesting contrast with the non-profit organisations I've worked with.
With a population of around 3.5 million, the sales potential for home gardeners is much smaller than in Britain; Ross, however, has found strength in diversity and continues to offer an excellent range. For example, nearly 30 varieties of hot chillies and several heirloom tomatoes , including Garden Peach, Big Rainbow and Black Karim. He also stocks a wide range of oriental vegetables and over ten different chicories, plus 25 lettuces. He believes in offering the best of the old and new varieties and the bottom line is, those that sell well will remain in the catalogue, those that don’t, won’t. Unhampered by restrictive EC legislation, the potential range of vegetables commercially available in New Zealand is much wider than in the UK. King’s Seeds is doing New Zealand gardeners a great service by making such a wide selection available.
Economies of scale dictate that most of the seed Ross sells is produced by growers in Europe, Japan and the US and he and his wife Glenys have travelled widely to establish personal contacts with these companies. He regaled us with tales about his travels and dealings with various companies and their somewhat eccentric owners.