the Black Orchid
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
The author acknowledges
the technical advice and the photograph provided by Rob Lucas.
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,
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,
Moore, L.B. and E.
Edgar, 1970. Flora of New Zealand. Volume 2. Wellington:
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.
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.
Zealand Native Orchids
Valley Orchid Circle
City Orchid Society, Wellington, New Zealand
Council Of New Zealand Inc.
Zealand Native Orchid Society
Native Orchid Society (ANOS)
from the The American Orchid Society