Kiekie belongs to the widely dispersed pandanus family, well known as a source of weaving material throughout the Pacific. It’s the only member of the family native to Aotearoa, and it’s best known for its deep green, glossy leaves—but it also produces fruit regarded by many as the finest delicacy of our native bush.
The taste sensation of its fruit sent early settlers grasping for superlatives; they made comparisons to pineapple; ripe pears with an aroma resembling vanilla; and soft, waxy bananas.
On the female plant, the fruit ripens in late autumn or early winter. Stalks produce three to five fruit (ureure) that look like a cross between sweetcorn and pineapple. The rough skin is peeled away to reveal a sweet pulp of berries inside.
The male flower produces a creamy, beige stamen mounted on a sweet, fleshy base of leaves (bracts) known as tāwhara. It flowers for about a fortnight in October. Traditionally, the bracts were eaten fresh off the plant; it was always a race to beat bush rats (and, more recently, possums) to this seasonal treat.
Some settlers described a cooling jelly drink made from the juice of tāwhara; others made a jelly from the flowers that apparently tasted like preserved strawberries.
Kiekie is common in the undergrowth of lowland forest, its aerial roots locking into bark and rock crevices for grip as it climbs up into the canopy.
Its elastic roots were collected and used extensively as lashings and for making sails on canoes. It was also used to bind together tāruke (crayfish pots) and hīnaki (eel pots).
For Māori weavers, kiekie was second in importance only to harakeke (flax). Its leaves are narrower and shorter, but may be more durable under water.
Strips are split from kiekie leaves, scraped, boiled, rinsed and dried in the sun to bleach. The fibre was often used for the finest whāriki (mats) and kete whakairo (woven bags) and to create tukutuku (wall panels). It was also used for rain-capes, belts and hats.
In Traditional Lifeways of the Southern Maori, Herries Beattie recorded a story of the mythological origins of kiekie in Te Waipounamu. Legend has it that a character by the name of Tamatakuariki travelled down the Poutini coast in search of his wife and, in his haste, shreds of his pōkeka (rain cape) were torn off by the vegetation. These fell to the ground and germinated as kiekie. One name of the plant is therefore Te Pōkeka-a-Tama, Tama’s raincoat.