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The significance of rengarenga
Arthropodium cirratum to Maori

Fig. 1 - flower detailReproduced from an article by the late Graham Harris

From The New Zealand Garden Journal (Journal of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture), Vol. 1, No. 2, June 1996, pp. 19-21.

The paper discusses the importance of rengarenga to Maori and evidence outlining the use of the plant as a food source and for medicinal, spiritual and other cultural purposes including its representation in kowhaiwhai patterns is presented based on historical and recent documents, and oral history.


Rengarenga Arthropodium cirratum is a lily which colonises rocky coastal areas from the North Cape to a southern limit from Kaikoura to Greymouth. It is often referred to as the New Zealand rock lily.

An alternative Maori name for the plant, maikaika, is shared with two native orchids (Orthocerus strictum and Thelymitra pulchella) that have similar starchy, edible root-like tubers. (Crowe 1995).

Rengarenga is not common in the wild in some regions of its habitat and is classified by the Department of Conservation as being vulnerable in the Wellington conservancy. The plant forms extensive colonies and in summer bears panicles of six petalled white flowers on 30 cm stalks. The flowers have purple and yellow stamens which are curled at the ends and give rise to the specific name cirratum (curled).

Significance to Maori

Information about the importance of rengarenga as a food source for Maori and its cultural and spiritual significance was recorded by William Colenso who, along with Elsdon Best, published much of the early ethnobotanical1 information in New Zealand. Colenso also recorded information about the medicinal properties of the plant and how it was utilised by Maori for that purpose.


Fig. 2 - distribution mapRengarenga is recorded by Tregear (1926: 496) as being one of the five sacred mauri or talismans, those things possessed of the soul of the Maori people. It is referred to in the whakatauaaki or proverb "Me ai ki te hua o te rengarenga me whakapakari ki te hua o te kawariki" may you be nourished by the fruit of the rengarenga and of the kawariki2 (Williams 1992: 251).

Kerr 1995 (pers. comm.) stated that this proverb relates to the Maori land wars of the 1860's in the Waikato when the Waikato Maori were being forced back into the King Country and were threatened with the loss of their land. The proverb means - even though we may be dispossessed, we will survive on what we can gather from the fruits of the land.

Riley (1994: 116) noted in Maori Healing and Herbal - New Zealand Ethnobotanical Sourcebook, that an inner meaning indicates that men as fodder for the controller of war, Tu, will be plentiful for that purpose. It is claimed that the spirits of such warriors, when killed in war, travelled to Cape Reinga in great style, carrying weapons, dancing and talking and making much noise. The spirits of those dying of natural causes, on the other hand, travelled to Cape Reinga silently waving branches of rengarenga as they moved. Riley also noted that rengarenga once lay in a place of honour on the tuahu (sacred place) at Whangara (north of Gisborne).

Kowhaiwhai patterns

Fig. 3 - male parts of flowerThe rafters of Maori wharenui (meeting houses) are often decorated with elaborate scroll-like patterns known as kowhaiwhai. These usually are painted in red, white and black, although the pattern shown in Figure 5 is grey, brown and white. The motif of the patterns in general, represent natural objects (Hamilton 1896: 118).

Neich 1993: 34 noted that some, have mythological associations and that the chief connotation of kowhaiwhai seems to relate to ideas of genealogy and descent. The rengarenga flower is represented in several kowhaiwhai patterns underlining the significance of the plant to Maori.

Colenso 1891: 460 in describing kowhaiwhai patterns wrote:

"One in particular, I may mention and explain: this pattern was called rengarenga, from being an imitation of, or an ideal association with the curved anthers of the flowers of that plant, the New Zealand lily (Arthropodium cirratum). Here we have another curious and pleasing instance of coincidence of ideas in natural close observation and naming between two widely opposite peoples, the ancient New Zealander and the highly civilised European the German botanist Forster who accompanied Cook on his second voyage to New Zealand and who gave the appropriate specific name of cirratum to this plant from its peculiar closely-curved and revolute anthers" (see fig 3).

Despite an extensive search, the kowhaiwhai pattern described by Colenso could not be located nor could any other patterns incorporating rengarenga anther patterns.

Simmons 1995 (pers. comm.) noted that the flowers of the rengarenga plant were sometimes incorporated into other kowhaiwhai patterns3 such as that shown in Fig 4. This was in the house Te Poho o Haraina which stood at Patutahi near Gisborne and was the house of Wi Pere of the Rongowhakaata iwi. It was opened in 1885 and burnt down in 1947. The basic pattern is similar to that identified by Hamilton 1896: 127, as Ngutukura (the whale) but this version incorporates stylised rengarenga flowers. Simmons indicated that these four petalled flowers (rengarenga actually has six petals) were known as popoa rengarenga and refer to the gods, whereas flowers with more than four petals refer to men.

The pattern shown in Fig 5, is reported by Simmons to be from a house in the Bay of Plenty-East Coast area and was painted on narrow flat rafters. Simmons noted that the stalks and unopened flowers of rengarenga were rendered quite realistically.

Fig. 4 - kowhaiwhai patterns


Colenso (1880: 30) recorded that rengarenga was one of the few native plants cultivated by Maori for food. He wrote:

"The thick fleshy roots of the New Zealand lily Arthropodium cirratum, were also formerly eaten, cooked in the earth oven. This plant grows to a very large size in suitable soil, and when cultivated in gardens. From this circumstance, and from not unfrequently noticed it about old deserted residences and cultivations, I am inclined to believe that it was also cultivated."

The author observed that wild plants growing in their natural habitat tend to produce small tightly congested rhizomes and often grow on rock faces almost like epiphytes, whereas the same plants grown in cultivated soil, produce much larger rhizomes.

Riley 1994: 416 noted that rengarenga rhizomes when roasted or cooked in a steam oven (umu) have a flavour not unlike potato. This was confirmed by the author who reported that after steaming rhizomes for 60 minutes, the younger sections nearest the growing points, were soft and tender, while the older more mature sections were very fibrous and not as palatable.

The rhizomes of a related plant, vanilla lily Arthropodium milleflorum are eaten by Australian Aborigines (Sainty l989: 46).

Fig. 5 - kowhaiwhai patterns


Maori were highly skilled in using herbs in conjunction with spiritual healing (Riley 1994: 9).

Riley noted that boils and abscesses were one of the main surgical complaints that afflicted Maori in pre-European times and into the early 20th century and referred to the report of the Colonial Hospital Wellington, for the year 1848 which listed abscesses as fourth equal with lung inflammation as cause of death among Maori patients.

Riley also noted in Maori Healing and Herbal that "no less one-fifth of the some 200 plants in this book are used to treat boils and abscesses."

Fig. 6 - rhizomesRengarenga was one of the plants used for the treatment of boils and abscesses and Colenso 1868: 267 recorded that the roots of the rengarenga were roasted and beaten to a pulp and applied warm to unbroken tumours or abscesses. White (1883) recorded that the bottom or lower end of the leaves is beaten into a pulp as a poultice to cure ulcers or longstanding sores and to allay swelling of joints or limbs. He also noted that the root of the plant was eaten in its raw state to cure the itch, although he did not specify the exact nature of this complaint.

More recent publications on medicinal uses of native plants including Riley 1994, and Brooker et al. 1981: 63, refer to the above two publications (White and Colenso) for medicinal uses of Arthropodium cirratum.

Enquiries made by the author indicate that rengarenga does not appear to be used for medicinal purposes today.


  1. Parsons 1992: 73, defined ethnobotany as "the scientific study of people and plants and the interaction between them"
  2. Ranunculus macrocarpus and R. rivularis
  3. Figs 4 and 5 were drawn by the author from photos, sketches and descriptions provided by D. R. Simmons, former curator of Ethnology at Auckland Museum.


The following individuals provided assistance and advice in the preparation of this study:

  • Hoturoa Kerr (Waikato University)
  • Rob Lucas (The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand)
  • Dave Simmons (former Curator of Ethnology, Auckland Museum)
  • Haami Te Whaiti. (Ngati Hinewaka me ona karangairanga).


    Brooker, S.G., R.C. Cambie and R.C. Cooper. 1981. New Zealand Medicinal Plants. Auckland: Heinemann Publishers.

    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: 338.

    Colenso, W. 1891. Reminiscence of the Ancient Maoris. Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute. 24: 460.

    Crowe, A. 1995. Which Coastal Plant? Auckland: Viking New Zealand.

    Department of Conservation Wellington Conservancy Draft Conservation Management Strategy 1994-2003. 1994 Volume 1. Appendix 1. PO Box 5086, Wellington.

    Hamilton, A. 1896. The Art Workmanship of the Maori Race in New Zealand. Dunedin: Fergusson and Mitchell. University of Otago.

    Kerr, Hoturoa. 1995. personal communication.

    Neich, R. 1993. Painted Histories. Auckland: Auckland University Press.

    Parsons, M.J. 1992. Ethnobotany A Maori Perspective. Proceedings of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture Annual Conference 1992.

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

    Sainty, G.R. 1989. Wildthings, plants and animals commonly seen around Sydney. Sydney, Australia: Sainty and Associates.

    Simmons, D.R. 1995. personal communication.

    Tregear, E. 1904. The Maori Race. Whanganui: A.D.Willis.

    White, J. 1883. Maori Pharmocopia. MS Papers 75 B35/11 Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.

    Williams, H.W. 1992. Dictionary of the Maori Language. 7th edition. Government Print Publications Ltd.


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.

Other articles on rengarenga (Arthropodium cirratum) by Graham Harris:

Harris, G.F. and Haami Te Whaiti. 1996. Rengarenga lilies and Maori occupation at Matakitaki-a-Kupe (Cape Palliser). Journal of the Polynesian Society. 105: 271-285.

Rengarenga — a striking little lily. Evening Post. 18 September 1997.

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