Not only is the karaka tree grand in appearance among the treasures of Tāne but it has many uses. The flowers herald the appearance of the stars Kopu and Tautoru in July. As the karaka berries start to ripen they signal the rise of Rehua (Antaries) in December. Fruiting karaka is a sign that kererū and kiore will soon be at their best for harvesting having fattened themselves up on karaka berries. Karaka whati (the broken karaka leaf) is an ancient ritual performed over warriors using a branch from the karaka tree before they went off to war. A more recent example is the karaka berry imprints on Auckland’s spaghetti junction motorway barriers, which mark the site of an important karaka grove that once existed in that area.
Sturdy, sacred and healing the karaka tree produces large, oval, orange, sweetly aromatic berries that were a good source of carbohydrates (60 per cent) and protein (10 per cent) for Māori in the lean winter months. Berries are produced in great abundance by the female trees and to a lesser extent by mixed male/female trees. The karaka tree is highly prized by Moriori and Māori alike and if your hapū had its own pā karaka it was considered a symbol of status. These trees were meticulously cared for and moss was regularly cleaned off them to ensure a good fruiting season. Karaka trees in many of these sites appear to have been planted and especially selected to bear larger fruits than those found elsewhere. These groves were also useful navigational markers as their large glossy leaves stand out from other vegetation when viewed from a distance. Moriori not only are the berries prized but also the wood, which is used to smoke and preserve foods in much the same way manuka is used today.
Possums and kererū are also known to eat the ripe flesh of the karaka berries, even though these same berries are known to be toxic to other animals including dogs, pigs and cattle. The nectar of the karaka flowers is also reported to be toxic to bee colonies.
Despite the flesh of the karaka berry being readily eaten or dried to make a flour by Māori, the raw inner kernels are toxic to humans and must be specially prepared before being eaten. Symptoms of karaka poisoning include giddiness, vomiting, convulsions, dislocation of joints, paralysis, and death.
Summer is the time for gathering your karaka berries for processing and storing for later use. Dried karaka berry kernels were an important kai for our ancestors and helped sustain communities over winter when carbohydrates were scarce. Despite containing a highly poisonous alkaloid Māori learned to process karaka kernels so that they are safe to eat— a practice that continues to this day in and around Kawhia, East Cape, the Chatham Islands and other coastal areas of New Zealand.
Karaka is also an important rongoā. To make a mirimiri oil from the karaka berries that is very smooth to the touch and relaxing, harvest a large handful of ripe karaka berries. Rub the flesh off the berries and place it in a 500ml glass jar. Cover the flesh with a 50/50 mix of coconut and almond oils and leave to stand in a warm sunny spot for 6 weeks. Cover the jar with a brown paper bag or thick tea towel to retain the heat but avoid direct sunlight ruining the oils. After 6 weeks strain the oil through a muslin cloth and store in amber glass bottles. This beautifully aromatic and smooth mirimiri oil will keep for up to 6 months. Karaka leaves are also used to help seal wounds and promote the healing of cuts and grazes by placing the shiny side of the leaf onto the wound and securing it over the wound with tape or harakeke tie.
Anei ngā mea i whakataukitia ai e nga tupuna, ko te kaha, ko te uaua, ko te pakari, ko te kaha i te toki, ko te uaua i te pakake, ko te pakari i te karaka
Here are the things valued by the ancestors, it is the strength, the vigour, the sturdiness, it is the strength of the adaze, the vigour of the whale and the sturdiness of the karaka tree.