Dandelion Coffee

Dandelion coffee is actually an infused tea, but it is used as a coffee substitute, having the appearance and, to a degree, the taste of coffee. It is made from the dried, roasted and ground root of the dandelion plant. It is important that the right dandelion roots are used, from the Taraxacum species, distinguishing it from other weed plants that look like yellow daisies. The roots of large healthy dandelions plants are harvested and processed into coffee. It has become a popular health or tonic drink, sometimes as an alternative to true coffee, especially in the USA.

Dried dandelion root coffee was being produced commercially at Ūpokongaro in the nineteenth century by farmer William Caines. In 1853 Caines had acquired 105 acres of land on what is now the Kaiwhaiki Road. He cleared the heavy bush gradually and ran sheep and cattle. He used a punt and waka for transportation between his farm and Whanganui.

1. Dandelion Coffee Tin

A tin of Taraxacum, Dandelion Coffee, made by William Caines of Upokongaro 1880-1890 (ref: 1951.41.3)

Finding ways of ensuring a cash flow was important for settler farmers in the district. Brick-making was another source of income for Caines. His bricks were made of clay from his property and rammed by hand into wooden moulds. He also made white-pine roofing shingles, and later tōtara shingles, sold for 12/- per thousand, delivered.

And the coffee seemed very promising. Caines grew the dandelions in rows in his garden, just like any other crop. After the plants had flowered they were dug and the roots dried. They were then ground in a hand-operated wheat mill, said to have been brought to New Zealand by one of the British Army regiments stationed in the district. A large iron flywheel was attached to give momentum to the actual grinder on the main shaft, the raw material being fed through the funnel as the grounds dropped from the mill chute. The machine could be operated by one person at the crank-handle.

The mill is in the Museum collection, as are two one pound tins of the coffee, which is a deep brown colour and has still has a distinct “coffee” aroma. Tins of “Pure Dandelion Coffee” were produced from 1880 to about 1890, sold for the most part in the Ūpokongaro area. Although there is no record of the amount produced, it appears that there was a reasonable demand for it.

2. Dandelion Coffee Label

An unused Taraxacum label (ref: 1802.1110.2)

The coffee product was named “Taraxacum”, Taraxacum officinale being the botanical name of the dandelion. The label, printed locally by A D Willis Printers of Wanganui, states that the product was grown and prepared by “William Caines, Pikopiko, Upokongaro, Wanganui.” The label also declares that the dandelion coffee as prepared by Mr. William Caines, “Contains all the medicinal virtues pertaining to the plant, which are of an opening and cleansing quality and therefore very effectual for obstructions of the Liver, Gall and Spleen, and Diseases that arise therefrom. It is also beneficial in cases of the Urinary Organs, being powerful in cleansing imposthumes and inward ulcers in the urinary passage and, by its drying and temperate quality, heals them. In Progressing Consumption, the use of the Pure Dandelion Coffee will give the sufferer great relief.”


Libby Sharpe is Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.


Transforming Flow into Flour

Like most migrants, our earliest colonial settlers missed familiar foods from home, and in addition, New Zealand’s native food sources were often difficult to procure in edible form. Dairy and meat supplies were relatively straightforward to establish, but staples such as bread proved more difficult.
In 1813, Northland Chief Ruatara became the first Maori to cultivate wheat, which was ground using a hand-mill provided by Reverend Samuel Marsden. Hand mills were portable but broke easily, and were often thrown away rather than being repaired.

Mill at Pipiriki

Mill at Pipiriki

Mechanised flourmills quickly became the most widespread industry in New Zealand, and remained one of the largest local industries throughout the 19th century. Wanganui’s first wheat was grown by William Bell in Wanganui East in 1844, and the first local flourmill was built by Tom Higgie at Putiki in 1845. By the late 1800s, a further five mills had been built at Pipiriki, Matahiwi, Jerusalem, Koriniti, and Kaiwhaiki. They were among the earliest mills in operation in the country. A millstone from the Jerusalem mill is currently on display at the museum.

Kawana Mill, probably early 1900s

Kawana Mill, probably early 1900s

Kawana Mill, near Matahiwi, is the only one of these mills remaining. It is also the oldest water-powered flourmill still in existence in New Zealand. Kawana Mill – full name Kawana Kerei Mill – was named for Governor George Grey who donated the millstones as a personal gift to the Nga Poutama people. There was also a Kawana Kerei Mill at Pamangungu near Rotorua, although like most early mills this one has not survived.


The Matahiwi mill was built in 1854 by millwright Peter McWilliam using salvaged totara logs, millstones from Australia, and machinery and bearings from England. Canoes were used to transport the heavy millstones upriver. In contrast, stones for a mill at Waitotara had to be rolled from Wanganui by hand.
Richard Pestall from France was Kawana’s first miller. His son continued to operate the mill after his father’s death until the mill closed in 1900 and was abandoned in 1913. The mill has a 5 metre iron-and-timber high-breast wheel, with water supplied at above axle height. Overshot wheels (where water falls from above the wheel) are more efficient, but they are also more difficult and expensive to construct.

Kawana waterwheel prior to repair in the 1970s

Kawana waterwheel prior to repair in the 1970s

The 1.2 metre diameter millstones are made from quartz pieces fixed together with a cementing compound (the French traditionally used plaster of Paris), and trimmed to interlock and work as a single stone of even quality. They are bound with an iron hoop around the outer edge.
The bedstone is fixed with a flat but grooved upper surface, while the runner stone above it has a concave lower surface and rotates via a central shaft geared to the waterwheel outside. The bedstone’s dressings are carved in ‘French burr’ (cheese segment) fashion and allow flour to flow via centrifugal force from the central eye where grain is fed from the hopper above, out to the stones’ skirt and through a chute to a sack below.

Dresser at Kawana with internal rotating brushes for grading the flour

Dresser at Kawana with internal rotating brushes for grading the flour

Stones are ‘dressed’ using a small pick to ensure grooves remain clean. Blunt or clogged stones produce poor-quality flour – and can cause machinery to jam. The stones are housed in a wooden tun, with a wood-framed ‘horse’ above to support the feed hopper. Wooden cogs in the cast iron wheel reduce operational noise, and a leather strap across bottom of the hopper rang a bell to alert the miller when grain ran low.


After grinding, flour was cooled before being returned to the upper floor for grading using a wire mesh cylinder with waterwheel-driven internal brushes. Kawana Mill had three dressers positioned one above the other – Grade 1 flour was collected from lowest level.
The waterwheel and millstones at Kawana are authentic, but the mill building is a replica designed by architect Chris Cochran and opened by Governor-General Sir Keith Holyoake, in October 1980.


Article by Karen Wrigglesworth, local engineer and writer.