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Polynesian Researches


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Vegetable productions of the Islands—Forest—Various kinds of timber—The Apape and faifai—The aito, or casuarina—Tiairi, candlenut tree—Callophylla Barringtonia—Thespesia populnea—Erythrina—Hibiscus —The auti, or cloth plant—Description, uses, and legends of the sacred aoa—Account of the bread-fruit tree and fruit—Various methods of preparing the fruit—Arum or taro, uhi or yam—U-ma-ra, or sweet potato—Culture, preparation, and method of dressing the arrow-root—Appearance and value of the cocoanut tree—Several stages of growth in which the fruit is used—Manufacture of cocoa-nut oil

The warmth of a tropical climate, and a humid atmosphere, operating on a prolific soil, combine to render vegetation in the South Sea Islands rapid and luxuriant. The botany, however, of the islands was rather abundant than diversified, when compared with that of New Holland, or other intertropical countries. But though the flora of Polynesia is less varied and brilliant than that of New South Wales, and among its valuable trees there be neither the oak of Europe, the teak of India, the cedar of America, the eucalypti of New Holland, nor the pine of New Zealand, it is not deficient in valuable timber.

Many of the inferior hills, and the sides of the loftiest mountains, are clothed with forests of stately trees. Among these, the most valuable is the apape, a tree resembling, in its habits of page 31 growth, the gum of New Holland, and the pine of New Zealand, rearing its straight and branchless trunk, two or three feet in diameter, forty of fifty feet, and spreading above a light crown of pale green leaves, not much unlike the leaves of the English ash. The wood, which is harder than the pine, and of a beautiful pink or salmon colour, is easily worked and durable. It is frequently used by the natives in building their canoes. The faifai is another tree resembling this, but rather smaller in size, of a bright yellow colour, and hard texture. Numbers of small kinds of timber are found in the mountains, but these two are the most valuable.

Next to these there is a numerous class that grow on the sides of the hills, and connect the forests of the mountains with the woods of the valley or the plain. The principal of these is the aito, or toa, casuarina equasitifolia; the shape of this tree is remarkably light and elegant, and its appearance is superior to that of the most graceful of the firs. The wood when first cut has a deep red, but on exposure to the air it assumes a dark chesnut or black colour. It is exceedingly hard, and more durable than any other in the islands: by foreigners it is often called iron wood; and was formerly employed by the inhabitants in the manufacture of their implements of war. The reva, galaxa sparta, is another large and useful tree, growing on the sides of the mountains, where is also found the tiairi, or candle-nut tree, alurites triloba. The form of this tree is stately; the foliage, beautifully white, gives a pleasing relief to the verdure of the mountain sides.

The most valuable and beautiful trees are those that grow in the valleys or plains: the chief of page 32 these is the splendid tamanu, or ati, callophyllum inophyllum; this, like most of the trees in the islands, is an evergreen; the leaves resemble those of the laurel in shape, but are more dark and shining; the trunk seldom rises above twelve or twenty feet without branching, yet it is one of the most magnificent trees in the country: the stem is often four feet in diameter; the grain of the wood resembles mahogany; the colour is rather lighter, but the texture equally close, and the wood more durable. It is one of the most valuable kinds of timber, and is not only used by the natives in the manufacture of their household furniture, but as keels for their largest canoes, as it is a kind of wood which the insects never perforate. Next to this, the hutu, Barringtonia speciosa, is the most splendid tree. Its growth and foliage greatly resemble the magnolia; and when in full bloom, its gigantic figure, adorned with large white flowers, whose petals are edged with bright pink, render it a most imposing object. The trunk is frequently three or four feet in diameter, but though occasionally used, it is less prized than the tamanu or tou, which is a species of cordia, and is a valuable tree. Next to the ati, the miro, thespesia populnea, though of smaller growth, is most highly prized by the people; the wood is durable, the grain is close, and the colour a variegated chesnut. The atai, though deciduous, is a beautiful tree; it is the erythrina coralodendron, and when in blossom, its light green acacia foliage, adorned with a bright red papilionaceous flowers, render it a most pleasing object. The branches are occasionally employed in fencing, but the wood of the trunk, being remarkably spongy, is seldom used. The sea shore is generally ornamented with several kinds page 33 of mimosa, but none of any great beauty or value. One of the most serviceable trees is the purau, or fau, hibiscus tiliaceus. In all the islands it is more abundant than any other, and though generally crooked and branching, the wood is light, tough, and durable. On account of its lightness, elasticity, and strength, it is selected for paddles and bows; it furnishes the best boards for the native vessels, and its long slender branches make excellent rafters for the ordinary dwellings. The mara and the pua, the beslaria laurifolia of Parkinson, is also a useful as well as an elegant tree, while its blossoms are among the most fragrant of native flowers.

To the above catalogue many others might be added, which, though inferior in size and number, are highly serviceable to the natives. With the exception of the purau, most of them are of slow growth. In consequence of the recent alteration in their habits of life, timber is much more in demand than formerly, and has of late years become less abundant. As the natives are generally averse to planting bread-fruit trees, and for general purposes always expect a supply of timber from the spontaneous growth of the forests, there is great fear that, without more regard to the future than they have hitherto been induced to manifest, timber will in a few years become very scarce among them. It is, however, to be hoped that the great quantity they are now using, will cause them to feel the necessity of providing for a continued supply. We have often urged it upon their attention, but they seem to think it unnecessary, and perhaps the spontaneous growth may be more rapid and abundant than we have anticipated.

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Next to the trees that furnish them with timber, those plants from which they formerly procured their clothing, require to be noticed. The most valuable of these is the auti, morus papyrifera, or the Chinese paper-mulberry. The greater part of the cloth worn in the islands is made with the bark of this plant, which is cultivated as osiers or willow-twigs are cultivated in England, excepting that, instead of a low and wet, a rich and dry soil is selected. The bark of the bread-fruit is also used for this purpose; but the most singular tree is the aoa.

Among the beautiful and diversified vegetable productions that adorn the banks of the lake of Maeva, is one of these trees. It stands near the large temple of Tane, at Tama-pua, and is one of the most ancient and extensive that I have met with in the islands. In its growth, the aoa resembles the banian tree of the East, and is probably a variety of the species. The bark has a light tinge and shining appearance, the leaf lance-shaped and small, of a beautiful pea-green colour. It is an evergreen, and is propagated by slips or branches, which readily take root. When the stem of the young tree is about two or three inches in diameter, the bark immediately below the branches, which generally spread from the trunk about six feet above the ground, begins to open near the lower part of the limbs. A number of fine yellow-pointed roots protrude, and increase in size and length every year. The branches grow horizontally, and rather bending than otherwise: from different parts of these, fibres shoot forth through the bursting bark, and hang like fine dark-brown threads. The habits of growth in these pendulous roots are singular: sometimes page 35 they appear like a single line, or rope, reaching from the highest branches nearly to the ground, where they terminate in a bunch of spreading fibres, not unlike a tassel. At other times, while there is one principal fibre, a number of others branch off from this at unequal distances, from its insertion in the bough above, and terminate in a cluster of small fibres. The different threads are sometimes separate from each other for a considerable distance, and, near the bottom, unite in one single root.

As soon as these depending fibres reach the ground, they take root, and, in the course of a number of years, become solid stems, covered with a bark resembling that of the original tree, and forming so many natural pillars to the progressively extending branches above.

By this singular process, the aoa, at Tamapua, appears more like a clump or grove than a single tree. The original stem was joined by one or two, of such dimensions, that it was not easy to distinguish the parent from the offspring; and the fibres that had united with the ground, and thus became so many trunks or stems of the tree, covered a space many yards in circumference. The lateral branches continue to extend, and tendrils of every length and size are seen in all directions depending from them, appearing as if in time it would cover the face of the country with a forest, which yet should be but a single tree.

The most remarkable appearance, however, which the aoa presents, is when it grows near some of the high mountain precipices that often occur in the islands. A short distance from Buaoa, where the rocks are exceedingly steep, and almost perpendicular for a hundred feet or more, page 36 an aoa appears to have been planted near the foot of the rocky pile, and the tender fibres protruded from the branches, being nearer the rocks at the side than the ground below, have been attracted towards the precipice. From this, fresh nourishment has been derived; the tree has continued to ascend, and throw out new fibres still higher, till it has reached the top. Here a branching tree has flourished, exhibiting all the peculiarities of the aoa; while the root, and that part growing along the face of the rock, resemble a strong interwoven hedge, extending from the base to the summit of the precipice.

The account of the origin of this tree is one of the most fabulous of native legends: it states that the moon is diversified with hill and valley like our earth, that it is adorned with trees, and among these the aoa, the shadow of whose spreading branches, the Polynesians suppose, occasions the dark parts in her surface. They state that, in ancient times, a bird flew to the moon, and plucked the berries of the aoa; these are smaller than grapes; the bird readily carried them, and, flying over the islands, dropped some of the seeds, which, germinating in the soil, produced the aoa tree.

Nearly allied to the aoa, is the mate, ficus prolixa, an useful tree, its berries furnishing a beautiful scarlet dye, and its bark supplying the cord for the manufacture of the large and durable nets employed in taking salmon. The romaha, urtica argentea, is also a valuable plant, with the bark of which, the natives twist their strong and elastic fishing-lines, and the cord for their smaller nets.

The vegetable productions, from which the inhabitants derive a great part of their subsistence, page 37 page 38 page 39 are numerous, varied, and valuable: among these, the first that demands notice is the breadfruit tree, artocarpus, being in greater abundance, and in more general use, than any other. The tree is large and umbrageous; the bark is light-coloured and rough; the trunk is sometimes two or three feet in diameter, and rises from twelve to twenty feet without a branch. The outline of the tree is remarkably beautiful, the leaves are broad, and indented somewhat like those of the fig-tree, frequently twelve or eighteen inches long, and rather thick, of a dark green colour, with a surface glossy as that of the richest evergreen.

Bread Fruit Tree

Bread Fruit Tree

The fruit is generally circular or oval, and is, on an average, six inches in diameter; it is covered with a roughish rind, which is marked with small square or lozenge-shaped divisions, having each a small elevation in the centre, and is at first of a light pea-green colour; subsequently it changes to brown, and when fully ripe assumes a rich yellow tinge. It is attached to the small branches of the tree by a short thick stalk, and hangs either singly, or in clusters of two or three together. The pulp is soft; in the centre there is a hard kind of core extending from the stalk to the crown, around which a few imperfect seeds are formed.

There is nothing very pleasing in the blossom; but a stately tree, clothed with dark shining leaves, and loaded with many hundreds of large light green or yellowish coloured fruit, is one of the most splendid and beautiful objects to be met with among the rich and diversified scenery of a Tahitian landscape. Two or three of these trees are often seen growing around a rustic cottage, and embowering it with their interwoven and prolific branches. The tree is propagated by shoots page 40 from the root, it bears in about five years, and will probably continue bearing fifty or sixty.

The bread-fruit is never eaten raw, except by pigs; the natives, however, have several methods of dressing it. When travelling on a journey, they often roast it in the flame or embers of a wood-fire; and, peeling off the rind, eat the fruit: this mode of dressing is called tunu pa, crust or shell roasting. Sometimes, when thus dressed, it is immersed in a stream of water, and, when completely saturated, forms a soft, sweet, spongy pulp, or sort of paste; of which the natives are exceedingly fond.

The general and best way of dressing the breadfruit, is by baking it in an oven of heated stones. The rind is scraped off, each fruit is cut into three or four pieces, and the core carefully taken out; heated stones are then spread over the bottom of the cavity forming the oven, and covered with leaves, upon which the pieces of bread-fruit are placed; a layer of green leaves is strewn over the fruit, and other heated stones are laid on the top; the whole is then covered with earth and leaves, several inches in depth. In this state, the oven remains half an hour or longer, when the earth and leaves are removed, and the pieces of breadfruit taken out; the outsides are in general nicely browned, and the inner part presents a white or yellowish, cellular, pulpy substance, in appearance slightly resembling the crumb of a small wheaten loaf. Its colour, size, and structure are, however, the only resemblance it has to bread. It has but little taste, and that is frequently rather sweet; it is somewhat farinaceous, but not so much so as several other vegetables, and probably less so than the English potato, to which in flavour it is also inferior. It is slightly astringent, and, as a page 41 vegetable, it is good, but is a very indifferent substitute for English bread.

To the natives of the South Sea Islands it is the principal article of diet, and may indeed be called their staff of life. They are exceedingly fond of it, and it is evidently adapted to their constitutions, and highly nutritive, as a very perceptible improvement is often manifest in the appearance of many of the people, a few weeks after the bread-fruit season has commenced. For the chiefs, it is usually dressed two or three times a day; but the peasantry, &c. seldom prepare more than one oven during the same period; and frequently tihana, or bake it again, on the second day.

During the bread-fruit season, the inhabitants of a district sometimes join, to prepare a quantity of opio. This is generally baked in a prodigious oven. A pit, twenty or thirty feet in circumference, is dug out; the bottom is filled with stones, logs of firewood are piled upon them, and the whole is covered with large stones. The wood is then kindled, and the heat is often so intense, as to reduce the stones to a state of liquefaction. When thoroughly heated, the stones are removed to the sides; many hundred ripe bread-fruit are then thrown in, just as they have been gathered from the trees, and are piled up in the centre of the pit; a few leaves are spread upon them, the remaining hot stones built up like an arch over the heap, and the whole is covered, a foot or eighteen inches thick, with leaves and earth. In this state it remains a day or two; a hole is then dug on one side, and the parties to whom it belongs take out what they want, till the whole is consumed. Breadfruit baked in this manner, will keep good several weeks after the oven is opened.

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Although the general or district ovens of opio were in their tendency less injurious than the public stills, often erected in the different districts they were usually attended with debauchery and excess, highly injurious to the health and debasing to the morals of the people, who frequently relinquished their ordinary employment, and devoted their nights and days to mere animal existence, of the lowest kind—rioting, feasting, and sleeping, until the opio was consumed. Within the last ten years, very few ovens of opio have been prepared, those have been comparatively small, and they are now almost entirely discontinued.

Another mode of preserving the bread-fruit is by submitting it to a slight degree of fermentation, and reducing it to a soft substance, which they call mahi. When the fruit is ripe, a large quantity is gathered, the rind scraped off, the core taken out, and the whole thrown in a heap. In this state it remains until it has undergone the process of fermentation, when it is beaten into a kind of paste. A hole is now dug in the ground, the bottom and sides of which are lined with green ti leaves; the mahi is put into the pit, covered over with ti leaves, and then with earth or stones. In this state it may be preserved several months; and, although rather sour and indigestible, it is generally esteemed by the natives as a good article of food during the scarce season. Previous to its being eaten, it is rolled up in small portions, enclosed in bread-fruit leaves, and baked in the native ovens.

The tree on which the bread-fruit grows, besides producing two, and in some cases three crops in a year, of so excellent an article of food, furnishes a valuable gum, or resin, which exudes from the page 43 bark, when punctured, in a thick mucilaginous fluid, which is hardened by exposure to the sun, and is serviceable in rendering water-tight the seams of their canoes. The bark of the young branches is used in making several varieties of native cloth. The trunk of the tree also furnishes one of the most valuable kinds of timber which the natives possess, it being used in building their canoes and houses, and in the manufacture of several articles of furniture. It is of a rich yellow colour, and assumes, from the effects of the air, the appearance of mahogany; it is not tough, but durable when not exposed to the weather.

It is very probable, that in no group of the Pacific Islands is there a greater variety in the kinds of this valuable fruit, than in the South Sea Islands. The several varieties ripen at different seasons, and the same kinds also come to perfection at an earlier period in one part of Tahiti than in another; so that there are but few months in the year in which ripe fruit is not to be found in the several parts of this island. The Missionaries are acquainted with nearly fifty varieties, for which the natives have distinct names—these, as collected by one of the first Missionaries, I have by me, but it is unnecessary to insert them—the principal are, the paea, artocarpus incisa, and the uru maohe, artocarpus integrifolia.

Next to the bread-fruit, the taro, or arum, is the most serviceable article of food the natives possess, and its culture receives a considerable share of their attention. It has a large, solid, tuberous root, of an oblong shape, sometimes nine or twelve inches in length, and five or six in diameter. The plant has no stalk; the broad heartshaped leaves rise from the upper end of the root, page 44 and the flower is contained in a sheath or spathe. There are several varieties; for thirty-three of which the natives have distinct names; and, as the plant is found to thrive best in moist situations, it is cultivated in low marshy parts. A large kind, called ape, arum costatum, which is frequently planted in the dry grounds, is also used in some seasons, but is considered inferior to the taro.

All the varieties are so exceedingly acrid and pungent in their raw state, as to cause the greatest pain, if not excoriation, should they be applied to the tongue or palate. They are always baked in the same manner as bread-fruit is dressed; the rind, or skin, being first scraped off with a shell. The roots are solid, and generally of a mottled green or gray colour; and when baked, are palatable, farinaceous, and nutritive, resembling the Irish potato as much as any other root in the islands.

The different varieties of arum are propagated either by transplanting the small tubers, which they call pohiri, that grow round the principal root, or setting the top or crown of those roots used for food. When destitute of foreign supplies, we have attempted to make flour with both the bread-fruit and the taro, by employing the natives to scrape the root and fruit into a kind of pulpy paste, then drying it in the sun, and grinding it in a hand-mill. The taro in this state was sometimes rather improved, but the bread-fruit seldom is so good as when dressed immediately after it has been gathered.

The uhi, or yam, dioscoria alata, a most valuable root, appears to be indigenous in most of the South Sea Islands, and grows remarkably well. Several page 45 kinds flourish in the mountains; the shape of the root is generally long and round, and the substance rather fibrous, but remarkably farinaceous and sweet. The kind most in use is generally of a dark brown colour, with a roughish skin; it is called by the natives obura.

The yam is cultivated with much care, though to no very great extent, on account of the labour and attention required. The sides of the inferior hills, and the sunny banks occasionally met with in the bottoms of the valleys, are selected for its growth. Here, a number of small terraces are formed one above another, covered with a mixture of rich earth and decayed leaves. The roots intended for planting are kept in baskets till they begin to sprout; a yam is then taken, and each eye, or sprout, cut off, with a part of the outside of the root, an inch long and a quarter of an inch thick, attached to it; these pieces, sometimes containing two eyes each, are spread upon a board, and left in some part of the house to dry; the remainder of the root is baked and eaten. This mode of preparing the parts for planting does not appear to result from motives of economy, as is the case in some parts where the Irish potato is prepared for planting in a similar manner; but because the natives imagine it is better thus to plant the eyes when they first begin to open, or germinate, with only a small part of the root, than to plant the whole yam, which they say is likely to rot. Whether the same plan might be adopted in planting the sweet potato, and other roots, I am not prepared to say, as it is only in raising the yam that it is practised in the horticulture of the natives. When the pieces are sufficiently dry, they are carefully put in the ground with the page 46 sprouts uppermost, a small portion of dried leaves is laid upon each, and the whole lightly covered with mould. When the roots begin to swell, the cultivators watch their enlargement, and keep them covered with light rich earth, which is generally spread over them about an inch in thickness.

The yam is one of the best flavoured and most nutritive roots which the islands produce. The natives usually bake them; they are, however, equally good when boiled; and, as they may be preserved longer out of the ground than any other, they are the most valuable sea-stock to be procured; and it is to be regretted that they are not more generally cultivated. Few are reared in the Georgian Islands; more perhaps in the Society cluster; but Sir Charles Sanders' Island is more celebrated for its yams than any other of the group.

The umara, or sweet potato, convolvulus batatus, or chrysorizus, is grown by the natives as an article of food. The richest black mould is chosen for its culture; and the earth is raised in mounds nine or ten feet in diameter, and about three feet high. They do not plant the roots; but in the top of these mounds insert a small bunch of the vines, which germinating, produce the tuberous roots eaten by the natives. In the Sandwich Islands, the sweet potato is one of the principal means of subsistence; here it is only partially cultivated, and is greatly inferior to those grown in the northern islands, probably from the difference of soil and climate. The roots are large, and covered with a thin smooth skin. In size, shape, and structure, they resemble several kinds of the Irish potato. The umara is very sweet, seldom mealy, and sometimes quite soft, but altogether page 47 less palatable than the taro or the yam. It is dressed by the natives in their stone ovens, and is only used when the bread-fruit is scarce.

Patara, is a root growing wild in the valleys, in shape and taste resembling a potato more than any other root found in Tahiti. It is highly farinaceous, though less nutritive than the yam; the stem resembles the woodbine or convolvulus. The natives say the flower is small and white; I never saw one, for it is not cultivated, and but seldom sought, as the tuberous root is small, and more than two are seldom found attached to the same vine or stalk.

The natives are acquainted with rice; but, although both the soil and climate would probably favour its growth, it has not yet been added to the edibles of Tahiti. We have not been very anxious to introduce it, as the quantity of water required for its culture, would, we have supposed, induce in such a climate a state of atmosphere by no means conducive to health. But though they have not rice, they have a plant which they call hoi, the shape and growth of which resemble the patara; but in taste and appearance it is so much like rice, that the natives call the latter by the native designation of the former. It is very insipid, and only sought in seasons of scarcity.

The pia, or arrow-root, chailea tacca, is indigenous and abundant. It is sometimes cultivated; but in most of the islands it grows spontaneously on the high sandy banks near the sea, or on the sides of the lower mountains, and appears to thrive in a light soil and dry situation. Though evidently of a superior quality, and capable of being procured in any quantity, it requires some labour to render it fit for food, and on this account page 48 it was not extensively used by the natives, but formed rather a variety in their dishes at public feastings, than an article of general consumption.

The growth of the arrow-root resembles that of the potato. Although indigenous, and growing spontaneously, it is occasionally cultivated in the native gardens, by which means finer roots are procured. When it is raised in this manner, a single root uncut is planted; a number of tuberous roots, about the size of large new potatoes, are formed at the extremities of fibres, proceeding from the root which had been planted. The leaves are of a light green colour, and deeply indented; they are not attached to one common stem, but the stalk of each distinct leaf proceeds from the root. The stalk, bearing the flower, rises in a single shaft, resembling a reed, or arrow, three or four feet high, crowned with a tuft of light pea-green petalled flowers. These are succeeded by a bunch of green berries, resembling the berries of the potato. To the shape and size of the reed or shaft bearing the flower, the arrow-root is probably indebted for its name.

When the leaves from the stalk dry or decay, the roots are dug up and washed; after which the rind is scraped off with a cowrie shell. The root is then grated on a piece of coral, and the pulp pressed through a sieve made with the wiry fibrous matting of the cocoa-nut husk. This is designed to remove the fibres and other woody matter which the root may contain. The pulp, or powder, is received in a large trough of water, placed beneath the rustic sieve. Here, after having been repeatedly stirred, it is allowed to subside to the bottom, and the water is poured off. Fresh water is applied and removed, until it flows from the pulp, page 49 tasteless and colourless; the arrow-root is then taken out, dried in the sun, and is fit for use.

Simple as this process is, it requires considerable care to dry it properly. When partially dry, the natives were formerly accustomed to knead or roll it up in circular masses, containing six or seven pounds each, and in this state expose it to the sun till sufficiently dry to be preserved for use. By this process they prepared much that has been exported from the islands, which may account for its inferior colour, as the whole mass was seldom sufficiently dry to prevent its turning mouldy, and assuming a brown or unfavourable colour.

They had no means of boiling it, but were accustomed to put a quantity of the arrow-root powder with the expressed milk from the kernel of the cocoa-nut into a large wooden tray, or dish; and, having mixed them well together, to throw in a number of red-hot stones, which being moved about by thin white sticks, heated the whole mass nearly to boiling, and occasioned it to assume a thick, broken, jellied appearance. In this state it is served up in baskets of cocoa-nut leaves, and is a very rich sweet kind of food, usually forming a part of every public entertainment.

Arrow-root has recently been prepared in large quantities, as an article of exportation to England; but although it is equal to that brought from the West Indies, it has not been so well cleaned, dried, or packed, and has consequently appeared very inferior when it has been brought into the market. There is reason, however, to believe, that when the natives shall have acquired better methods of preparing their arrow-root, it may become a valuable article of commerce.

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There is a very large and beautiful species of fern, called by the natives nahe; the leaves of which are fragrant, and, in seasons of scarcity, the large tuberous kind of root is baked and eaten. It is insipid, affords but little nutriment, and is only resorted to when other supplies fail. It is altogether a different plant from the fern, the root of which is eaten by the natives of New Zealand. The berries, or apples, of the nono, morindo citrifolia, and the stalks of the pohue, convolvulus Brasiliensis, are also eaten in times of famine.

The fruits of the islands are not so numerous as in some continental countries of similar temperature, but they are valuable; and, next to the bread-fruit, the haari, or cocoa-nut, coccos nucifera, is the most serviceable. The tree on which it grows is also one of the most useful and ornamental in the islands, imparting to the landscape, in which it forms a conspicuous object, all the richness and elegance of intertropical verdure.

The stem is perfectly cylindrical, three or four feet in diameter at the root, very gradually tapering to the top, where it is probably not more than eighteen inches round. It is one single stem from the root to the crown, composed apparently of a vast number of small hollow reeds, united by a kind of resinous pith, and enclosed in a rough, brittle, and exceedingly hard bark. The stem is without branch or leaf, excepting at the top, where a beautiful crown or tuft of long green leaves appears like a graceful plume waving in the fitful breeze, or nodding over the spreading wood, or the humble snrubbery. The nut begins to grow in a few months after it is planted; in about five page 51 or six years, the stem is seven or eight feet high, and the tree begins to bear. It continues to grow and bear fifty or sixty years, or perhaps longer, as there are many groves of trees, apparently in their highest perfection, which were planted by Pomare nearly forty years ago. While the plants are young, they require fencing, in order to protect them from the pigs; but after the crown has reached a few feet above the ground, the plants require no further care.

The bread-fruit, the plantain, and almost every other tree furnishing any valuable fruit, arrives at perfection only in the most fertile soil; but the cocoa-nut, although it will grow in the rich bottoms of the valleys, and by the side of the streams that flow through them, yet flourishes equally on the barren sea-beach, amid fragments of coral and sand, where its roots are washed by every rising tide; and on the sun-burnt sides of the mountains, where the soil is shallow, and remote from the streams so favourable to vegetation.

The trunk of the tree is used for a variety of purposes: their best spears were made with cocoanut wood; wall plates, rafters, and pillars for their larger houses, were often of the same material; their instruments for splitting bread-fruit, their rollers for their canoes, and also their most durable fences, were made with its trunk. It is also a valuable kind of fuel, and makes excellent charcoal.

The timber is not the only valuable article the cocoa-nut tree furnishes. The leaves, called niau, are composed of strong stalks twelve or fifteen feet ong. A number of long narrow pointed leaflets are ranged alternately on opposite sides. The page 52 leaflets are often plaited, when the whole leaf is called paua, and forms an excellent skreen for the sides of their houses, or covering for their floors. Several kinds of baskets are also made with the leaves, one of which, called arairi, is neat, convenient, and durable. They were also plaited for bonnets or shades for the foreheads and eyes, and were worn by both sexes. In many of their religious ceremonies they were used, and the niau, or leaf, was also an emblem of authority, and was sent by the chief to his dependents, when any requisition was made: through the cocoa-nut leaf tied to the sacrifice the god was supposed to enter; and by the same road the evil spirits, who, it was imagined, tormented those affected with diseases were driven out. Bunches or strings of the leaflets were also suspended in the temple on certain occasions, and answered the same purpose as beads in Roman Catholic worship, reminding the priest or the worshipper of the order of his prayers. On the tough and stiff stalks of the leaflets, the candle-nuts, employed for lighting their houses, were strung when used.

Round that part of the stem of the leaf which is attached to the trunk of the tree, there is a singular provision of nature, for the security of the long leaves against the violence of the winds. A remarkably fine, strong, fibrous matting, attached to the bark under the bottom of the stalk, extending half way round the trunk, and reaching perhaps two or three feet up the leaf, acting like a bracing of network to each side of the stalk, keeps it steadily fixed to the trunk. While the leaves are young, this substance is remarkably white, transparent, and as fine in texture as silver paper. In this state it is occasionally cut into page 53 long narrow slips, tied up in bunches, and used by the natives to ornament their hair. Its remarkable flexibility, beautiful whiteness, and glossy surface, render it a singularly novel, light, and elegant plume; the effect of which is heightened by its contrast with the black and shining ringlets of the native hair it surmounts. As the leaf increases in size, and the matting is exposed to the air, it becomes coarser and stronger, assuming a yellowish colour, and is called aa.

There is a kind of seam along the centre, exactly under the stem of the leaf, from both sides of which long and tough fibres, about the size of a bristle, regularly diverge in an oblique direction. Sometimes there appear to be two layers of fibres, which cross each other, and the whole is cemented with a still finer, fibrous, and adhesive substance. The length and evenness of the threads or fibres, the regular manner in which they cross each other at oblique angles; the extent of surface, and the thickness of the piece, corresponding with that of coarse cotton cloth; the singular manner in which the fibres are attached to each other—cause this curious substance, woven in the loom of nature, to present to the eye a remarkable resemblance to cloth spun and woven by human ingenuity.

This singular fibrous matting is sometimes taken off by the natives in pieces two or three feet wide, and used as wrapping for their arrow-root, or made into bags. It is also occasionally employed in preparing articles of clothing. Jackets, coats, and even shirts, are made with the aa, though the coarsest linen cloth would be much more soft and flexible. To these shirts the natives generally fix a cotton collar and wristbands, and seem susceptible page 54 of but little irritation from its wiry texture and surface. It is a favourite dress with the fishermen, and others occupied on the sea.

The fruit, however, is the most valuable part of this serviceable, hardy, and beautiful plant. The flowers are small and white, insignificant when compared with the size of the tree or the fruit. They are ranged along the sides of a tough, succulent, branching stalk, surrounded by a sheath, which the natives call aroe, and are fixed to the trunk of the tree, immediately above the bottom of the leaf. Fruit in every stage, from the first formation after the falling of the blossom, to the hard, dry, ripe, and full-grown nut, that has almost begun to germinate, may be seen at one time on the same tree, and frequently fruit in several distinct stages on the same bunch, attached to the trunk of the same stalk.

The tree is slow in growth, and the fruit does not, probably, come to perfection in much less than twelve months after the blossoms have fallen. A bunch will sometimes contain twenty or thirty nuts, and there are, perhaps, six or seven bunches on the tree at a time. Each nut is surrounded by a tough fibrous husk, in some parts two inches thick; and when it has reached its full size, it contains, enclosed in a soft white shell, a pint or a pint and a half of the juice usually called cocoa-nut milk.

There is at this time no pulp whatever in the inside. In this stage of its growth the nut is called oua, and the liquid is preferred to that found in the nut in any other state. It is perfectly clear, and in taste combines a degree of acidity and sweetness, which renders it equal to the best lemonade. No accurate idea of the consistence and taste of page 55 the juice of the cocoa-nut can be formed from that found in the nuts brought to England. These are old and dry, and the fluid comparatively ran cid; in this state they are never used by the natives, except for the purpose of planting or extracting oil. The shell of the oua, or young cocoa-nut, is used medicinally.

In a few weeks after the nut has reached its full size, a soft white pulp, remarkably delicate and sweet, resembling, in consistence and appearance, the white of a slightly boiled egg, is formed around the inside of the shell. In this state it is called niaa, and is eaten by the chiefs as an article of luxury, and used in preparing many of what may be called the made-dishes of Tahitian banquets. After remaining a month or six weeks longer, the pulp on the inside becomes much firmer, and rather more than half an inch in thickness. The juice assumes a whitish colour, and a sharper taste. It is now called omoto, and is not so much used. If allowed to hang two or three months longer on the tree, the outside skin becomes yellow and brown, the shell hardens, the kernel increases to an inch or an inch and a quarter in thickness, and the liquid is reduced to less than half a pint. It is now called opaa, and, after hanging some months on the tree, falls to the ground. The hard nut is sometimes broken in two, and broiled, or eaten as taken from the tree, but is generally used in making oil

If the cocoa-nut be kept long after it is fully ripe, a white, sweet, spongy substance is formed in the inside, originating at the inner end of the germ which is enclosed in the kernel, immediately opposite one of the three apertures or eyes, in the sharpest end of the shell, which is opposite to that page 56 where the stalk is united to the husk. This fibrous sponge ultimately absorbs the water, and fills the concavity, dissolving the hard kernel, and combining it with its own substance, so that the shell, instead of containing a kernel and milk, encloses only a soft cellular substance. While this truly wonderful process is going on within the nut, a single bud or shoot, of a white colour but hard texture, forces its way through one of the holes in the shell, perforates the tough fibrous husk, and, after rising some inches, begins to unfold its pale green leaves to the light and the air; at this time, also, two thick white fibres, originating in the same point, push away the stoppers or coverings from the other two holes in the shell, pierce the husk in an opposite direction, and finally penetrate the ground. If allowed to remain, the shell, which no knife would cut, and which a saw would scarcely penetrate, is burst by an expansive power, generated within itself; the husk and the shell gradually decay, and, forming a light manure, facilitate the growth of the young plant, which gradually strikes its roots deeper, elevates its stalk, and expands its leaves, until it becomes a lofty, fruitful, and graceful tree.

There are many varieties of the cocoa-nut tree, in some of which the fruit is rather small and sweet. For each variety the natives have a distinct name, as well as for the same nut in its different stages of perfection. I have the names of six sorts, but it is unnecessary to insert them.

The juice of the nuts growing on the sea-shore does not appear to partake, in any degree, of the saline property of the water that must constantly moisten the roots of the tree. The milk of the nuts from the sandy beach or the rocky mountain, page 57 is often as sweet and as rich as that grown in the most fertile parts of the valley.

On first arriving in the islands, we used the cocoa-nut milk freely, but subsequently preferred plain water as a beverage; not that the milk became less agreeable, but because we supposed, perhaps erroneously, the free use of it predisposed to certain dropsical complaints prevalent among the people.

The cocoa-nut trees are remarkably high, sometimes sixty or seventy feet, with only a tuft of leaves, and a number of bunches of fruit, on the top; yet the natives gather the fruit with comparative ease. A little boy strips off a piece of bark from a purau, branch, and fastens it round his feet, leaving a space of four or five inches between them, and then, clasping the tree, he vaults up its trunk with greater agility and ease than a European could ascend a ladder to an equal elevation. When they gather a bunch at a time, they lower them down by a rope; but when they pluck the fruit singly, they cast them on the ground. In throwing down the nuts, they give them a whirling motion, that they may fall on the point, and not on the side, whereby they would be likely to burst.

Cocoa-nuts were formerly a considerable article of food among the common people, and were used with profusion on every feast of the chiefs; but for some years past they have been preserved, and allowed to ripen on the tree, for the purpose of preparing oil, which has recently become an article of exportation, although the value is so small as to afford but little encouragement to its extended manufacture.

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The cocoa-nut oil is procured from the pulp, and is prepared by grating the kernel of the old nut, and depositing it in a long wooden trough, usually the hollow trunk of a tree. This is placed in the sun every morning, and exposed during the day; after a few days the grated nut is piled up in heaps in the trough, leaving a small space between each heap. As the oil exudes, it drains into the hollows, whence it is scooped in bamboo canes, and preserved for sale or use. After the oil ceases to collect in the trough, the kernel is put into a bag, of the matted fibres, and submitted to the action of a rude lever press; but the additional quantity of oil, thus obtained, is inferior in quality to that produced by the heat of the sun. This process requires considerable labour for the grating of the kernel by the hand; but it is probable, should its manufacture be continued, that mills will be erected for bruising the pulp.

In addition to these advantages, the shells of the large old cocoa-nuts are used as water-bottles, the largest of which will hold a quart; they are of a black colour, often highly polished, and, with care, last a number of years. All the cups and drinking vessels of the natives are made with cocoa-nut shells, usually of the omoto, which is of a yellow colour. It is scraped very thin, and is often slightly transparent. Their ava cups were generally black, highly polished, and sometimes ingeniously carved with a variety of devices, but the Tahitians did not excel in carving. The fibres of the husk are separated from the pulp by soaking them in water, and are used in making various kinds of cinet and cordage, especially a valuable page 59 coiar rope; and, as the pious Herbert sung two hundred years ago,

“The Indian's nut alone
Is clothing, meat and trencher, drink and can,
Boat, cable, sail and needle, all in one.”

It is impossible to contemplate either the bread-fruit or cocoa-nut tree, in their gigantic and spontaneous growth, their majestic appearance, the value and abundance of their fruit, and the varied purposes to which they are subservient, without admiring the wisdom and benevolence of the Creator, and his distinguishing kindness towards the inhabitants of these interesting islands.