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Poisonous Plants of the Sanctuary
ZEALANDIA Ecosanctuary

Poisonous Plants of the Sanctuary

Do you know your tutu from your supplejack?

You’d be wise not to eat any asparagus-like shoots in the bush if you’re not sure!

In 2014 tramper Matthew Pike found this out the hard way after adding what he thought was a supplejack sapling to his boil-up, only to find – when he woke up in hospital – that he’d seasoned his dinner with the notorious tutu: a poisonous plant full of the neurotoxin tutin. Matthew’s reaction was so severe that his convulsions dislocated his shoulder; he was lucky to survive.

Tutu is native to New Zealand, and some of our eight species are endemic (found nowhere else in the world). At ZEALANDIA, tree tutu (Coriaria arborea) can be seen in front of the Shag Lookout, on the banks alongside the mine, and near the pontoon gate to the Takahē Lawn.

Tutu fruit is eaten by many of our bird species with no ill effects, but is unsafe for mammals unless the tiny seeds have been filtered out. ‘Toot’ poisoning was once a well-known cause of stock loss, in lowland areas where cattle were allowed to wander. Other historical casualties include two elephants in 1957, who browsed on tutu berries at the side of the road as the circus drove from town to town.

Traditionally, Māori fermented tutu fruit to make wine, having strained out the seeds, and also mixed tutu juice with seaweed to make a sweet jelly. Following the recipe was a life or death matter when it came to tutu puddings – four French sailors died in the 1830s after making their own version of tutu berry surprise.

Tutu was also used as a tattoo ink, and has medicinal uses in Rongoā Māori as a treatment for arthritis, skin rashes, and gout.

While the birds and insects of New Zealand are pleasingly benign, we do have a surprisingly large number of poisonous plants. Tutu is not the only one found within ZEALANDIA’s fence, but it is the most notorious. If you’re curious to learn more, you can stop one of our friendly roaming guides for information, book a tour, or join a walk and talk.

The last word goes to A. A. Gower, a Patea chemist, who made a patent medicine from the root of tutu in 1892. ‘Ma-uru’ was a cure for neuralgia, relieved eyestrain, and could cure ‘ear ache, headache, rheumatic pains, sprains. And all pain.’

A little something for your dislocated shoulder maybe?

Written by Liz Hibbs. Photos by Janice McKenna.

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