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Huperei — the Black Orchid

Fig. 1. Gastrodia cunninghamii flowers. Photo: Rob LucasReproduced from an article by the late Graham Harris

From The New Zealand Garden Journal (Journal of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture), Vol. 2, No. 3, September 1997, pp. 7-9.

The paper outlines the occurrence and biology of Huperei, Gastrodia cunninghamii, and examines the significance of the plant to Maori.

Huperei or the black orchid Gastrodia cunninghamii is a leafless orchid which bears flowers from November to February. Fifty or more flowers are borne on a single stem which can reach 1 metre in height. The flowers have short stalks and are about 15 mm long. They are purplish brown with mottled pale raised calluses on the outer surface and the inside of the flowers varies from cream to white. The flowers are tubular with 5 lobes and the labellum which is enclosed in the tube, is much longer than the column which supports the anther. The scent of the flowers has been described by some as unpleasant and by others as sweet. The orchids store nutrients in starchy underground rhizomes which may be up to 250 x 50mm. The rhizomes which lack roots have obvious remnants of scale leaves. The rhizomes may be up to 600mm below the soil surface.

Occurrence and distribution

Huperei is found throughout New Zealand in lowland forest and shrub land. Moore and Edgar 1970:158 record that it is "not uncommon in dark shaded places but easily overlooked.." They note that its range has not been fully recorded. The author has recorded numerous specimens growing in the Akatarawa valley near Upper Hutt. Most were found growing in deep shade near or in the vicinity of hard beech Nothofagus truncata however they were also found near Kahikatea Dacrycarpus dacrydioides and putaputaweta Carpodetus serratus in places where Nothofagus truncata was not present.

A Symbiotic Association

Huperei lacks leaves and chlorophyll and receives nutrients through a complex symbiotic association with a fungal pathogen (Armillaria novae-zealandiae), parasitic on the roots of a wide range of forest trees. This association is detailed by Campbell 1962. The summary to this paper records:

"The orchid Gastrodia cunninghamii, lives in association with thefungus Armillaria mellea, itself a parasite on the roots of forest trees. Of the three methods by which infection takes place the most important involves penetration of the basal rhizomes by fungal rhizomorphs proceeding from within the root of an adjacent tree. Fungal cytoplasm released into the cells of the digestive layer of the rhizome provides nutriment for the orchid which lacks both roots and chlorophyll.

Armillaria mellea referred to by Campbell, is now classified as A. novae-zealandiae (Pennycook 1989:37) who refers to A. mellea as a European species not known in New Zealand.

Although Gastrodia cunninghamii appears to be most commonly found growing near Nothofagus species it is also found growing where they are absent. Moore and Edgar 1970:158 note that most specimens are found in Nothofagus forest but that it also occurs on Mt Egmont, the Chatham Islands and Stewart Island where Nothofagus is absent. It appears that the plant is not confined to growing in or in the vicinity of native forest or in deep shade. Given 1959:4 recorded Gastrodium cunninghamii "growing in alluvial soil on the riverbank close to the trunks of willows. The nearest native forest was some miles distant..." These plants were growing near Takaka.

Pennycook 1989:37 lists a range of plants recorded as being hosts of Armillaria nova-zealandiae including matsudana willow Salix matsudana. It is possible that Gastrodia cunninghamii could have as many associations as Armillaria nova-zealandiae, its host fungus.

Significance to Maori

Fig. 2. Section through a flowerThe rhizomes of the huperei or perei were eaten by Maori and were regarded as a delicacy. They are described in Riley 1994:332 as being not unlike small kumaras, with a slightly sweet taste. They were cooked in a hangi or roasted in the embers. Colenso 1880:31 noted that the rhizomes were eaten but that they were scarce and only found in dense forest. Similar information is provided by Tregear 1926:99 in writing about traditional food sources of the Maori. He also describes the rhizomes as resembling a long red radish root. He agreed with Colenso that the root was valued, scarce and only found in dense forests. Hammond 1894:238 describes perei as like the taro in colour but the kumara in shape and that the tubers were from three to eight inches in length. He noted that the plant was quite common before the introduction of pigs.

Fig. 3. Gastrodia cunninghamii rhizomesThere appears to be no references to medicinal properties of the plant, however Colenso 1868:261 referred to the roots as containing "salep" which is described as a food or drug prepared from dried orchis roots (Grieve 1995:1). A related plant, Gastrodia elata from China contains gastrodin which has sedative, hypnotic and antispasmodic properties.

Maori must have gone to considerable effort to obtain huperei rhizomes as they were often found up to 600mm below the soil surface amongst tree roots in compacted soil. Campbell 1962:289-290 describes the difficulty in excavating rhizomes from beech forest in Fiordland and from mixed rain forest in South Westland. She recorded that many attempts to excavate rhizomes failed due to the compact nature of the soil and the very brittle rhizomes which were interwoven with a mass of tree roots.


Fig. 4. A Gastrodia cunninghammii rhizome. Note the remnants of scale leaves. Photo: Graham Harris.

According to Maori tradition the huperei or perei was not a plant of the earth but a creature of supernatural beings (Riley 1994:332) and there were many superstitions relating to it. The plant was supposed to understand the Maori language, so those who went to dig the rhizomes used the substitute name maukuuku to ensure that the huperei did not hear its name and disappear. Huperei was also known as uhiperei while the rhizomes were referred to as para or paratawhiti (Beever 1991:17).

Acknowledgement

The author acknowledges the technical advice and the photograph provided by Rob Lucas.

References

Beever, J. 1991., A Dictionary of Maori Plant Names. Auckland: Auckland Botanical Society. Bulletin 20.

Campbell, E.O., 1962. The Mycorrhiza of Gastrodia cunninghamii. Transactions of the Royal Society of New Zealand. Botany. 1: 289-96.

Colenso, W., 1868. Geographic and Economic Botany of the North Island of New Zealand. Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute, 1: 232-83.

Colenso, W., 1880. On the Vegetable Food of the Ancient New Zealanders. Transactions of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 13: 3-38.

Given, D.R., 1959. An unusual occurrence of Gastrodia cunninghamii Hooker. Auckland Botanical Society Newsletter 16 (3).

Grieve, M. 1995. Orchids. In A Modern Herbal. Homepage.. Available: Internet. URL http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/o/orchid13.html

Hammond, T.G., 1894. The Kumara, Perei, and Taewa. Journal of the Polynesian Society, 3: 237-38.

Moore, L.B. and E. Edgar, 1970. Flora of New Zealand. Volume 2. Wellington: Government Print.

Riley, M. 1994., Maori Healing and Herbal. New Zealand Ethnobotanical Sourcebook. Paraparaumu, New Zealand: Viking Sevenseas.

Tregear, E., 1926. The Maori Race. Whanganui: A.D.Wills.

 

Web-notes:

Graham Harris passed away December 2006. His obituary was published in the New Zealand Garden Journal (Journal of the RNZIH), Volume 10, Number 2, December 2007. pp. 26-27.

Some Orchid Links:

New Zealand Native Orchids

Whangarei Orchid Society

Hutt Valley Orchid Circle

Phils Orchid World

Capital City Orchid Society, Wellington, New Zealand

Orchid Council Of New Zealand Inc.

New Zealand Native Orchid Society

Australasian Native Orchid Society (ANOS)

OrchidWeb — from the The American Orchid Society

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