Ūpokongaro

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.

A Treasure Trove of Moa in Whanganui

Last week the Moa Gallery opened at the Whanganui Regional Museum in Stage I of a visible-storage project that sees the entire moa bone collection out of boxes in the basement to where people can see it, both in display cases and on the internet. But why is the moa collection so important? Why put it all on display?

North Island giant moa (Dinornis novaezealandiae)

North Island giant moa (Dinornis novaezealandiae)

Whanganui has been known for its moa bones since the earliest days of European settlement. As far back as the 1850s Anglican missionary Richard Taylor collected enormous bones from old pa sites and sent them to the eminent zoologist Professor Richard Owen in England. Owen was the first scientist to recognise that these bones could only be from a giant flightless bird, and coined the name Dinornis for them; a “terrible bird” in the same way a dinosaur was a “terrible lizard”.

Moa bones are found throughout the country, and collecting them was a popular hobby from the 19th century onward, so most museums in New Zealand have a moa collection. You can find the bones in caves from birds that wandered in, or fell down sinkholes; in dunes, where the shifting sand covered and protected their skeletons; or in swamps, where moa were trapped and sank into the mire, accumulating in huge numbers over the centuries.

The 1937 excavation at Todd’s Hole

The 1937 excavation at Todd’s Hole

As more of the pool was extracted, excavation continued as walls were built to hold back the liquid mud

As more of the pool was extracted, excavation continued as walls were built to hold back the liquid mud

One such moa death trap was near Ūpokongaro, up the Makirikiri Valley, in a swampy pool named Todd’s Hole on the Todd Family Farm. Beneath a thin crust of soil was a funnel of liquid mud full of moa bones, plus a few more from farm stock that had wandered in more recently. At first the bones could be just yanked out with an iron claw, but when the vast size of the deposit became clear, representatives from the Museum, with a £1200 excavation budget, began a proper excavation. Over 1937 and 1938 a crane, bucket and sluice were built, hundreds of cubic yards of mud sorted through by hand and about 2,000 moa bones extracted, cleaned and sorted.

Back at the Museum, the Curator George Shepherd began assembling skeletons from the pile of bones, putting together 10 in all. In those days moa classification was not well understood and many species were thought to be represented in the find, some from just a single bone.

Today with the help of DNA we can put the bones from Makirikiri into just three species: Mantell’s moa, a small species found around forest edges and wetlands; the bush moa, another small slender species that lived in the forest and seems to have been the most common kind of moa in the area; and the North Island giant moa, with gigantic females 1.5 m at the shoulder and weighing perhaps 200 kg, with males only half that size.

Photo of the Makirikiri Moa skeletons in the new Museum wing 1968. They’ve since been reassembled into positions more like those of a living moa.

Photo of the Makirikiri Moa skeletons in the new Museum wing 1968. They’ve since been reassembled into positions more like those of a living moa.

The skeletons were put on display in the Museum and the rest of the bones put in storage until they were re-examined in the late 1980s by moa expert Trevor Worthy. He was the first to recognise that the moa collection from Whanganui was of international importance. Although other large moa deposits had been discovered, especially in the South Island, most of those bones had been sent around the world, traded, lost, or destroyed. The Whanganui collection is one of the most important in the world because it has stayed almost completely intact, which lets scientists study an entire community of moa trapped in the swamp over thousands of years: their age, growth rate, size and male/female ratio.

These bony rings support the trachea, or windpipe, of a moa and are sometimes found in a pile in the middle of a very well-preserved skeleton.

These bony rings support the trachea, or windpipe, of a moa and are sometimes found in a pile in the middle of a very well-preserved skeleton.

The moa species that ate leaves and twigs would also swallow small stones, known as gastroliths or gizzard stones, to help grind up their food, in the same way chickens swallow pebbles and grit. Sometimes one or two kilograms of smooth stones can be found in a pile in a sand dune long after the rest of the moa skeleton has crumbled away.

The moa species that ate leaves and twigs would also swallow small stones, known as gastroliths or gizzard stones, to help grind up their food. Sometimes one or two kilograms of smooth stones can be found.

The goal of the Museum is to make this collection accessible by putting it all on exhibition and also by photographing, registering, and 3D-scanning the bones so everyone in the world can see them, not just people able to visit Whanganui. The whole process will be happening in the gallery itself, where visitors can watch and ask questions. We’re hoping that our moa collection will put Whanganui on the map, not only for moa biologists but for anyone interested in these amazing giant extinct birds.

 

Dr Mike Dickison is the Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum.