It’s Wednesday 28 April, one of those beautiful, early autumn mornings that the Waikato does so well: wispy, high clouds in a glorious deep blue sky, the year’s first threat of frost in the air. The full moon lingers above the western horizon.

The Hamilton Gardens are almost empty of people at this time of day, but a few hardy souls are making their way towards one of Hamilton Gardens’ most important sites: Te Parapara. Te Parapara is New Zealand’s only traditional Māori productive garden and today is the day of the annual kūmara harvest.

A diverse group of people is gathering for the ceremony. Young and old, Māori and Pākehā. A French couple are mingling with the crowd hoping to deepen their understanding of the culture of Aotearoa. A group of young people from the Te Mauri Tau project have made their way over from Raglan to get some ideas for their own kūmara gardens.

Head gardener Alice Gwilliam and her team are already on site making the final preparations for the ceremony. She leans on the (recently rabbit-proofed) fence surrounding the kūmara garden and explains that the harvest is a little later than usual this year. “Last week would have been better. We try to harvest them before the first frost, but this year rabbits got through the fence and wiped them out. We had to replace a whole lot, so I tried to leave them as long as possible.”

The garden itself is a series of mounds, resembling molehills, arranged in what at first glance appear to be rows but which, as Alice explains, are in fact aligned irregularly to attract maximum sunlight throughout the growing months.

The leaf coverage on top of the mounds differs according to the variety growing in the soil below. Some sport leaves spiking skywards, others have ivy-like tendrils that creep down the slope of the mounds and beyond.

There are three traditional structures within the bounds of the garden traditionally used to store food: a pātaka, a whatārangi and a rua. They are all ornately and beautifully carved in the traditional style of the area.

There are seven historic varieties of kūmara in the garden, some of which have been DNA traced backed to the original waka bringing the first Polynesians to these islands, such as the parsnip-white taputini.

The soil composition is an exact recreation of that used by the original inhabitants of the land as they learned to grow their tropical crops in a temperate climate. Sand, schist and ash are used to retain warmth and maximise drainage.

The ceremony begins with a karakia and the participants and visitors are led slowly towards the gates of the garden. Alice goes in first and removes the cover of leaves from one of the mounds and, with bare hands, reveals the deep purple of the first kūmara of the harvest. The other gardeners follow her in and from there the hard work begins.

All the digging is done by hand, since, according to Alice, a manual tool, such as a spade or a fork, could damage the soft flesh of the freshly dug kūmara.

The best of the crop will be put aside for future propagation. The rest will be given away to community groups and donated to the Salvation Army.

Wiremu Puke, who, along with his father Hare, was one of the driving forces behind the garden, is passionate about the importance of Te Parapara. He points out that the area along the banks of the Waikato was one of the most densely cultivated in the entire country before the arrival of Europeans.

“Te Parapara” Wiremu says “offers us a snapshot of how our ancestors cultivated food and allows us to study the methods and techniques used in pre-European times.”

Most of the swamps and the wetlands from which pre-European Ngati Wairere would have gathered and hunted their food have now been drained and destroyed. Te Parapara, therefore, is one of the few living links to the kai of the past.Wiremu points our “food is an integral part of humankind and all cultures celebrate and honour the food they grow and prepare.”

The digging continues through the morning. Gardeners work diligently to unearth every kūmara from beneath the mounds. As the day goes on, a gentle mist begins to rise from the soil as the sun burns off the dew.

It’s a beautiful sight in this most important and useful of gardens.

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