Tasteful book uncovers native plant stories

Rob Vennell hopes that his book helps others to appreciate NZ’s unique native plants.

Rob Vennell has always loved New Zealand’s native plants and he agrees that growing up in Red Beach, there was not a lot of bush to explore.

However, whenever he could, Rob spent time in Shakespear Regional Park, Eave’s Bush Reserve in Orewa or Wenderholm.

As a boy, he “tried to get lost”, even in a small patch of forest, inspired by wilderness survival stories. Living off what nature provided was one challenge he set himself in his early 20s. The plan was to try every edible native plant, apart from the poisonous ones of course, and he is almost there. Currently he says he’s resorted to further historical research in case he’s missed a few.

The project opened up the stories behind each native plant, making being in the bush fascinating for him in a whole new way.

“It’s like a treasure hunt every time you’re in the bush,” he says. “First I was interested in what you could eat, which led to the other things native plants can be used for.”

In general, he says eating his way through the bush was more about leaves, berries, shoots and roots that could be eaten for survival, rather than taste.

“The majority don’t taste that great, compared with, say, an apple,” he says.

The flower bracts of kiekie were surprisingly delicious – a bit like pear. However, the real thrill was finding the edible plants and trying them.

Top of his list was the heart of the nikau palm. Eating this kills the plant, so Rob waited until he found one that had been knocked over in a storm before he sampled it.

This month Rob, who is now a natural science collections manager at Auckland Museum, has his first book, The Meaning of Trees (Harper Collins) published.

It is filled with what he learned from research and personal experimentation, containing stories about a wide range of our native plants including how they have been used as food, in crafts and medicines.

The interest in the book is such that his talk at the Auckland Writers’ Festival later this month sold out.
Already he is thinking about writing another book, which he says is also quite likely to be about native plants.

Rob hopes that The Meaning of Trees opens up a new way to appreciate and value our native flora.

“This is the only place they grow and they all need to be there, working together to create a healthy ecosystem,” Rob says.

WIN this book

Hibiscus Matters has one copy of The Meaning of Trees by Robert Vennell to give away. To go in the draw write your name, address and daytime phone number on the back of an envelope and post to The Meaning of Trees giveaway, Hibiscus Matters, Unit G, Tamariki Plaza, 18 Tamariki Ave, Orewa 0931.

Or message Hibiscus Matters on Facebook requesting an entry in the draw. Entries close on Friday, May 24.

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