Raupo grow in standing water to about 3 metres tall, often forming dense and expansive masses in swamps, lake edges and damp seepages on hillsides. They grow from Northland to Southland, from coastal swamps up to 1000 metres above sea level. The same species of raupo grows throughout Australia, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and up to the Philippines. Other very similar-looking species grow in Europe and North America.
Like many water plants raupo spread by way of their swollen roots or rhizomes, known to the Maori as akakoareare. The plants have light grey- green strap-like leaves which die back in the winter to resprout again in the spring. The head of the raupo has two parts. The upper skinny part carries male flowers, the lower velvety brown part, the female flowers which eventually produce tiny seeds.
Virtually every part of raupo is useful. Maori used its dried leaves for thatching or floor covering, for making sails, fishing rafts and floats, for thatching whare and canoes, for weaving baskets, cloaks and kites. Raupo was also an important food item for Maori. Parties of up to 60 persons collected raupo pollen (pua), mixed it into a porridge or gruel like sweetcorn and baked it into cakes. Sometimes these were flavoured with crushed manuka beetles. The roots were peeled like bananas and eaten steamed.
In the United States of America raupo is known as 'cattail' and the Cattail Research Centre at Syracuse University reports that, weight for weight, raupo roots contain more carbohydrate than potatoes. Eaten raw the roots can cause vomiting, but cooked, they can be made into pancakes, bread and biscuits.
Maori tohunga are known to have used raupo in their rituals. As part of the procedure to nullify a curse, the aggrieved person would repeat it to the tohunga who then took as many sticks of raupo as words in the curse, and made a human effigy of them. In the place of the heart, the tohunga placed a protective sacred stone. Tohunga also used raupo sticks to divine the future. Before wars, for example, they would throw down miniature raupo darts and read the future in how they fell.
In Europe, the butt ends of bulrush leaves were collected in autumn, dried and used to caulk seams in boats, barges, and barrels. Bulrush silk has been used for stuffing pillows and sleeping bags and parts of the leaves used for weaving seats of chairs. In the nineteenth century, the Royal Italian Navy stuffed shipboard mattresses with dried bulrush leaves.
The mattresses also served as emergency life buoys as they remained afloat for days and could support several men in the water. The whole seeding head, soaked in tallow or, these days, sump oil, makes a good flare for eeling at night.
Today, raupo play an important role in purifying dirty or polluted swampy water. The plants act like baffles to settle sediments out of the water. They also remove some poisons, such as arsenic, from geothermal waters. These beneficial plants are the reason why swamps are sometimes called 'Nature's kidneys'.
The following publications may be found on the bookshelves in NatureSpace, the Natural Environment Discovery Centre, or in Te Aka Matua Library and Information Centre on Level 4.
Crowe, A. (1981). A field guide to the native edible plants of New Zealand. Auckland: Collins.
Colenso, W. (1880). On the vegetable food of the ancient New Zealanders before Cook's visit. Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute. Vol. 13. pp 4-38.
Dawson, J W. (1988). Forest vines to snow tussocks. Wellington: Victoria University Press.
Dawson, J W. and Lucas, R. (1996). New Zealand coast and mountain plants - their communities and lifestyles. Wellington: Victoria University Press.
Johnson, P. and Brooke, P. (1989). Wetland plants in New Zealand. Wellington: DSIR Publishing.
Orbell, Margaret. (1985). The Natural World of the Maori. Auckland: David Bateman.
Riley, M. (1994). Maori Healing and Herbal. Paraparaumu: Viking Sevenseas Ltd.
Webb, C., Johnson, P. and Sykes, W R. (1990). Flowering plants of New Zealand. Christchurch: DSIR Botany.
Raupo Photographed by Rob Lucus Courtesy of Rob Lucas Ref. no: 6295
"Pungapunga, the yellow pollen of the raupo flowers was collected in the summer season when the plant is in full flower. I have been astonished at the large quantities of pollen then obtained. On one occasion, I had several buckets full brought to me by the present chief, Tareha, in his canoe, some of which I sent, both raw and cooked to Kew Museum. In appearance the raw state exactly resembles the ground yellow mustard of commerce and when put up into bottles, would be mistaken for it. It is obtained by gently beating it out of the dense flowering spikes It is used as food. It is mixed up with water into cakes and baked. It is sweetish and light and reminds one strongly of a London gingerbread. Dr Sir J. D. Hooker informed me that when he was in India he found the natives of Scinde making precisely similar use of it." (1)
(1) Colenso, W. (1880). On the vegetable food of the ancient New Zealanders before Cook's visit. Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute. Vol. 13. pp 4-38.