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Volume 24, 1891
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§ VI. Of The Fine Smelling-sense And Taste of The Ancient Maoris for Perfumes.

I have already more than once, and in former papers read here before the Institute, touched on the superior powers of sight of the ancient Maoris; and it has often occurred to my mind that they also possessed a very keenly developed sense of smell, which was largely and quickly shown whenever anything sweetly odoriferous, however fine and subtle, had been used—as eau de Cologne, essence of lavender, &c. Indeed, this sense was the more clearly exhibited in the use of their own native perfumes, all highly odorous and collected with labour. Yet this sensitive organization always appeared to be the more strange when the horribly stinking smells of

[Footnote] † Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. xiv., p. 67, &c.

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two of their common articles of food—often, in the olden times, in daily use—are considered: rotten corn (maize, dry and hard, in the cob) long steeped in water to soften it, and dried shark. The former, however, has long been abandoned; yet at one period every village at the North had its steeping-pit.

In a paper I read here at our June meeting** I mentïoned some of the very small Hepaticæ (Lophocolea and Chiloscyphus species) as being used for perfume by the Maoris, who called them piripiri. Their scent was pleasant, powerful, and lasting. Hooker, in describing those plants, has mentioned it from dried and old specimens. Of one species, Lophocolea pallida, he says, “odour sweet;” of another, L. novæ-zealandiæ, “often fragrant;” of another, L. allodonta, “odour strong, aromatic;” of another, Chiloscyphus fissi-stipus, “a handsome strongly-scented species;” and he has further preserved it to one of them in its specific name, C. piperitus, “odour of black pepper.”

There were also two or three ferns—viz., Hymenophyllum sanguinolentum, a very strong-smelling species, hence too its specific name; dried specimens not only retain their powerful odour, but impart it to the drying-papers: Polypodium pustu-latum, having an agreeable delicate scent: and Doodia fragrans, a neat little species; this last was so far esteemed as some-times to give name to the locality where it grew, as Puke mokimoki, the little isolated hill which once stood where the Recreation-ground now is in Napier; that hill having been levelled to fill in the deep middle swamp in Monroe Street.

One of the Pittosporum trees, tawhiri (P. tenuifolium), also yielded a fragrant gum; but the choicest and the rarest was obtained from the peculiar plant taramea (Aciphylla colensoi), which inhabits the alpine zone, and which I have only met with near the summits of the Ruahine Mountain-range, where it is very common and very troublesome to the traveller that way. The gum of this plant was only collected through much labour, toil, and difficulty, accompanied, too, with certain ceremonial (taboo) observances. An old tohunga (skilled man, and priest) once informed me that the taramea gum could only be got by very young women—virgins; and by them only after certain prayers, charms, &c., duly said by the tohunga.

There is a sweet little nursery song of endearment, expressive of much love, containing the names of all four of their perfumes, which I have not unfrequently heard affectionately

[Footnote] * See above, Art. XXXVII.

[Footnote] † Mokimoki Hill, from mokimoki, the name of that fern.

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and soothingly sung by a Maori mother to her child while nursing and fondling it:—

Taku hei piripiri,
Taku hei mokimoki,
Taku hei tawhiri,
Taku kati-taramea.
My little neck-sachel of sweet-scented moss,
My little neck-sachel of fragrant fern,
My little neck-sachel of odoriferous gum,
My sweet-smelling neck-locket of sharp-pointed taramea.ast;

Here I may observe that to the last one of the four the word kati is prefixed: this word—meaning, to sting, to bite, to puncture, to wound sharply and painfully—is added to indicate the excessive sharpness of the numerous leaves and leaflets of the taramea plant (hence judiciously generically named by its early discoverer, Forster, Aciphylla = needle-pointed leaf), and the consequent pains, with loss of blood, attending the collecting of its prized gum, thus enhancing its value.

This natural and agreeable little stanza, one of the olden time, has proved so generally taking to the Maori people that it has passed into a proverbial saying, and is often used, hummed, to express delight and satisfaction—pleasurable feelings. And sometimes, when it has been so quietly and pri-vately sung in a low voice, I have known a whole company of grey-headed Maoris, men and women, to join in the singing: to me, such was always indicative of an affectionate and simple heart. How true it is, “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin”!

In the summer season the sleeping-houses of their chiefs were often strewed with the large sweet-scented flowering grass karetu (Hierochloe redolens). Its odour when fresh, confined in a small house, was always to me too powerful.

[Footnote] * See Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. xii., p. 148.

[Footnote] † It is pleasing to notice that the observant artist Parkinson (who was with Sir Joseph Banks as his botanical draughtsman, and Cook on his first voyage to New Zealand) makes special mention of those little sachels in his Journal, saying of those Maoris who came off to the ship in their canoes, “The principals among them had their hair tied up on the crown of their heads with some feathers, and a little bundle of perfume hung about their necks” (Journal, p. 93). Captain Cook, also, has similar remarks respecting the young women.

[Footnote] ‡ Sir J. D. Hooker thus writes of this fine, sweet-smelling grass in his Flora Novæ Zelandiæ: “A large and handsome grass, conspicuous for its delicious odqur, like that of the common vernal grass (Anthoxanthum) of England, that gives the sweet scent to new-made hay” (I.c., vol. ii., p. 300). A closely-allied northern species (H. borealis), which was also supposed to be found here in New Zealand, is also used on the Continent of Europe for similar purposes. In some parts of Germany it is dedicated to the Virgin Mary (hence, too, its generic name of Hierochloe = sacred grass), and is strewed before the doors of the churches on festival days, as the sweet sedge (Acorus calamus) is strewed on the floor of the cathedral at Norwich for the same purpose at such seasons.

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Here, in conclusion, I may briefly mention an instance of their correct discrimination on the contrary side, clearly showing how well and closely the ancient New-Zealander agreed in his opinion of a plant with the highly-civilised scientific visitor already named above, the botanist Forster. Forster named the Coprosma genus from the fœtid odour of the first species he discovered in the South Island, which signification he also continued in its specific name, C. fætidissima: this shrub also bears a similar Maori name, hupiro, highly expressive of its very disagreeable smell.