We all enjoy the bounty of botany everyday – perhaps without even realising it – in the form of our 5+ a day. While working on a research project in Fiji, Ricky-Lee Erickson and Yumiko Baba of our Natural Science team encountered a rich botanical diversity in a range of delicious forms. Read on to discover Fijian botany at its most flavourful.

Blog by Ricky-Lee Erickson and Yumiko Baba

In June 2023, three members of Tāmaki Paenga Hira’s Natural Science Team travelled to Fiji to work with the botanical collection housed at the South Pacific Regional Herbarium at the University of the South Pacific (USP).

This mahi was part of a Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) project, in which the Museum, the USP and the Ministries of Forestry and Agriculture of Fiji partnered to catalogue, curate and upload USP’s Natural Science collections to GBIF’s data aggregate platform. Our goal was to transcribe botanical specimen labels so it could be uploaded to GBIF.

We dreamed that we would be escaping Auckland’s endless cold and rain for a tropical Fiji work getaway; instead, we arrived to a windowless, enclosed, and air-conditioned collection area. Though it was warm outside, the collection room was colder than we expected (a pest and fungus control method), and it was raining outside the entire time we were there.

While we made steady progress with data entry for the botanical collections, we were yearning to see the rush of colourful tropical diversity, which was lacking in the dried, typically brown, botanical herbarium specimens. We finally got a taste of the real Fiji outside when we came out of the collection room briefly for breaks.

AK33918, Hypnea pannosa – Lumi- a cosmopolitan red algae that is used for gelling liquid.

Our colleagues introduced us to Fijian-Indian cuisine at lunchtime, and we were astounded by the large number of species used in the different dishes. Fijian-Indian cuisine typically contains fresh local ingredients, some of which are familiar (such as carrot, cucumber and onion) and other less familiar vegetables (to the warm temperate climate of New Zealand) such as okra, narrow eggplant, bitter gourd, ridge gourd, snake beans and moca (spinach-like vegetable pronounced like motha).

Trying local food is an easy way to connect with and learn about a new
culture. When we approached through the lens of the natural sciences 
even a visit to the supermarket became a journey of biodiversity
discovery. Our mission was to find these vegetables whole rather
than "chopped-up and cooked". The trip to the supermarket also presented an opportunity to learn the local names for these plants we encountered, for example, we learnt angled guards are torai, taro roots are daro, and taro leaves are rourou (or roro)!

A seaweed we came across, called nama, at the supermarket puzzled us. Our colleagues told us they are “a popular food amongst locals and eaten raw”, and our curiosity encouraged us to try it next time we came across it.

Fijian - iTaukei -cuisine offered us a peek into Fijian traditional culture, which we had an opportunity to experience at a contemporary iTaukei restaurant. 

What made our experience even more delightful were the diverse array of natural ingredients. iTaukei food includes many local plants, some native including young fern fronds, canoe plants such as coconut, taro (both leaves and root) and cassava, and food from the moana; fish, prawns (ura) and seaweed. We examined each element in these colourful dishes, admired and discussed them at length. The salad (pictured at the top of the second plate) made up of nama, ota and coconut jelly cubes, made with lumi, left one of the biggest impressions on us – so unique, colourful and tasty.

Our mystery seaweed, nama, resembled citrus pulps in texture, except each sack was filled with slightly salty water instead of citrus juice.

Ota, young fern fronds, were blanched and brightly green and nutty.

The jelly is concocted by gelatinising coconut with a seaweed called lumi, which has a natural gelling agent to thicken the liquid into jelly. There are a few species of seaweeds commonly consumed to varying degrees as thickening agents in Fiji (SPC Aquacultural portal, accessed on 21 August 2023), and many other species are commonly consumed. Given the geographical position of the Fiji Islands in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean, it is hardly surprising that marine life is important in their everyday diet.

This brief interaction with Fijian Cuisine opened the door to the future discovery of the other islands in Fiji and the wider Pacific.

On our final day in Fiji, we broke free of the cold confines of the herbarium and visited Colo-I-Suva Forest Reserve, in the foothills of Suva. At a record-making botanist’s snail pace, stopping to examine each orchid, fern frond and moss mound, we delighted in seeing Fiji’s plants in their natural setting. But it wasn’t all about the plants, we were adopted by a local dog, who accompanied us for the entire hike. She made a fantastic guide, stopping to wait for the slow botanists, occasionally going as far as to lie down while a particularly interesting specimen was admired.

We were also lucky enough to spot some native birds, despite the intermittent rain. We were greeted by the Soqe (Barking Pigeon) and Buneko (Golden Dove) calls and spotted a few perched up high in the palms towering over us. We also spotted Kaka (Masked Shining Parrots), Secala (Collared Kingfisher) and Manu (Fiji Bush-Warbler).

It was a magical way to end our week, finally getting a glimpse of that colourful tropical diversity Fiji has to offer, both on the menu and in the forest. 

Listen to the call of the Soqe and Buneko below.

Skipping through the rainforest in Colo-I Suva, accompanied by a resident dog.

Barking Pigeon

Soqe, Barking Pigeon, by Tom Tarrant CC BY-SA 3.0


Golden Dove

Buneko, Golden Dove male, by JJ Harrison CC BY-SA 3.0


The following is a list of local name of plants from our iTaukei dishes.

Nama – sea grapes - Caulerpa lentillifera – Cosmopolitan green alga in warm water; eaten in many parts of the world.

Dalo – taro - Colocasia esculenta- root

Rourou – taro- Colocasia esculenta- leaves.

Ota – young shoots of the native fern - Diplazium esculentum – Native to tropical and sub-tropical parts of Asia and the South West Pacific Islands. Consumed commonly throughout its native range.

Lumi – two species of seaweeds - Gracilaria maramae or Hypnea pannosa. Gracilaria maramae- Native to the Pacific islands (Grows in the upper subtidal to lower intertidal areas on the backreefs, favouring sites with good currents and water exchange.  Hypnea pannosa- Cosmopolitan red alga. Both are used to gelatinise coconut milk.

Moca Amaranthus viridis - Cosmopolitan weedy herb, commonly used both as folk medicine and in cuisine. It is used in curry or stir-fry, in a similar way that spinach is used.

And here are some of the dishes we tried (and recommend!)

Rourou moci –minced shrimp/ prawn (ura) wrapped in taro leaves (rourou) with coconut sauce.

Kakana dina – true food (extrapolated to mean staple food) - cassava- Manihot esculenta and dalo

Kokoda – raw fish cooked in coconut milk and citrus juice.

Collections Online

Explore the Museum's botany collections featured in this blog.