Few native New Zealand plants produce a sweet and tasty fruit that you can pick and eat straight away. Pātōtara, a prickly, low-growing shrub, is one of them. Its juicy yellow-orange berries, about the size of currants and tasting like apricots, were once a popular sweet treat for children.
The heath-like shrub spreads laterally, often forming quite dense stands of upright stems up to about 15 centimetres tall. The leaves have a hard texture and a tip that narrows to a fine, sharp point that can be prickly to touch. It’s common in dryland sites at all altitudes throughout Aotearoa, ranging from coastal sand dunes at sea level to rocky outcrops, low tussock grasslands and sub-alpine herb fields.
Pātōtara has a long flowering season, from September to January, with flowers and fruit appearing at the same time, and fruit ripening from February through to April. Its white, tubular flowers have a strong honey scent. When the plant was more plentiful, its fragrance filled whole alpine valleys; with an offshore wind, it was apparently perceptible to mariners at sea—even before land was within sight.
In Traditional Lifeways of the Southern Māori, Herries Beattie’s informants told him the kiore/native rat, weka, and even the koreke/extinct native quail relied on a diet of berries from native plants, including pātōtara. This plant also features in a number of recipes for traditional Māori perfumes and scents, including an oil to anoint bodies before burial. In this recipe, the root of the pātōtara was carefully scraped and smelled like cloves, according to one source in Murdoch Riley’s Māori Healing and Herbal. Medicinally, crushed leaves of pātōtara, mānuka, tarata and kawakawa were mixed with taramea gum and oil from kōhia/New Zealand passionfruit seeds to make a scented oil to treat chronic aches and pains.
Excerpted from Treasures of Tāne: Plants of Ngāi Tahu by Rob Tipa (Huia Publishers).