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No. 39 (June 1962)
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These old gourds are now in the Dominion Museum in Wellington.

The Old Maori Water Bottles

In the old days, when people had no pottery, they grew gourds to use as containers—to keep water in, and wild honey, and also meat, preserved in its own fat—such as rats, pigeons, tuis, and human flesh.

Often they used carved wooden bowls too, and baskets of totara bark or flax. But they valued gourds very much, and went to a great deal of trouble to grow them well.

Legends say that the gourd plant was one of the earliest to be introduced to New Zealand, since its seeds were so easy to carry, easier than the tubers of the taro and kumara, for instance. It is said that Ngati Toi were the first people to cultivate it; according to one story, they were given the gourd by a god called Pu-te-hue. Pu-te-hue was one of the offspring of Tane, the Fertiliser of all of the productions of the earth. Pu-te-hue is, at the same time, the personification of the gourd, and one of the names by which it is called; he said, as he gave himself to the people, that ‘the seeds within me shall provide water vessels for my descendants’.

Gourd seeds were always planted on the 16th or Turu, and 17th or Rakau-nui, days of the moon's age, that is to say just after the full moon. There was a ritual which had to be performed at the planting, so that the gourds would grow well.

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The planter faced towards the east, with a seed in either hand. Then he raised his arms in a big circle in the air, moving them in the shape into which he wished the gourds to grow; after this he placed the seeds in their hole.

It was said that you could always find plenty of gourd seeds in the entrails of the sperm whale, and that this was because in Hawaiki gourds grow and hang upon the cliffs in great quantities, so that when they are ripe they fall into the sea, and are swallowed by the whales which swim there.

As well as being food containers, gourds (or hue, the most common Maori word for them) had many other uses. Often they were picked when they were green and cooked as a vegetable. They were used sometimes as trumpets and flutes, as containers for shark oil and red ochre, as lamps, and as floats for fishing nets. Children used them as water wings when they were learning to swim. Sometimes a stick was thrust through a small hue, a couple of holes were bored in its sides, and it became a humming top.

There is a story about a man at Taranaki who was so proud of his beauty, and of his beautiful tattoo or moko, that when he was travelling, or exposed to sun, he used to wear a mask which was made from half a gourd, with holes cut for his eyes and mouth, tattooed in imitation of his moko and decorated with feathers.

Only the gourds which were the personal property of chiefs were decorated; some part of the moko of the chief would be carved on the gourd, and in this way the tapu of the chief was transferred to it.

In 1919 Elsdon Best wrote that the Maori gourd was almost extinct. But it has survived; on this page and the next there are photographs of some of the beautiful gourds which the Auckland artist Theo Schoon grows and decorates. Pine Taiapa, the East Coast carver, is another artist who grows and carves beautiful gourds. It is because of their beauty that the old Maoris valued them so much; and it is because of this, because they are so decorative whether or not you carve them, that there is an increasing interest today in growing them. In America, for example, they are very popular, and you can choose between more than 40 different varieties advertised in the seed catalogues.

Mr Schoon has found that there were at least four distinct varieties of hue, each of them producing a different range of shapes, growing here before Europeans came. He grows three of these varieties; the fourth, the giant taha huahua, is probably extinct now, but he has replaced it with a similar variety which comes from Africa, and with which he is growing gourds which are almost six feet in circumference.

On page 59, our gardening page, we publish an article in which Mr Schoon describes how to grow gourds. Although you must be very careful with them if you want the best results, modern gardening aids, such as plastic cloches, make them much easier to grow than they used to be.

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Some of the Schoon's gourds.

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Gourds take a long time and a great deal of skill to carve. Mr Schoon, shown here at work, sells most of his gourds in America.

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Gourds full of preserved birds and protected by woven baskets would be displayed like this at feasts.

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In those of his designs which are based on Maori motifs, Theo Schoon shows how well traditional New Zealand art may serve as an inspiration for contemporary New Zealand art.