Matariki Mushrooms is a whānau business based in Motueka, promoting and protecting native strains of mushrooms through educational growing workshops and wānanga within their community. Valetta Sówka (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Arawa, Ngāti Rārua) and Michael Wienboecker share their respective heritages, as well as their knowledge and passion for permaculture in an effort to help whānau rediscover and celebrate traditional healthy kai through their business. “We saw growing native mushrooms and teaching whānau how to grow them as a tool for reconnection,” says Valetta. “We also wanted to do something to help youth, especially Māori, connect with nature and growing foods.”  

Both Michael (Mihau) and Valetta have a longstanding interest in permaculture, an approach to land use that seeks to emulate naturally occurring ecosystems. Mihau studied environmental science and later spent four years researching different approaches to permaculture, while Valetta’s interest came about through her work as a film maker at different permaculture institutes across the world, including France, Australia, and India.  

This year Mihau and Valetta are working with their local marae and Te Pūtahitanga o Te Waipounamu to provide Matariki Mushroom’s first mycoremediation pilot project ‘Heal the Whenua’. While the many benefits of fungi are not so well known, there has been a shift in people’s awareness and interest in this space as people look to more sustainable ways of living and growing kai. “I was born in Poland so I grew up gathering mushrooms every autumn with my mum and my grandma,” says Mihau. “Lots of gardening, pickling and preserving – a lot of the things people want to learn when they start permaculture. My friends thought that was very weird when I was little, but now I see people seeking that sort of knowledge again.”  

“because for us that’s a really important part of the wānanga – not just the mushrooms but reaching people, helping them feel a sense of pride in our ancestors and our ancestors’ way of eating..."

A unique part of their business journey has been Valetta’s reconnection to her local whakapapa connections and learning more about her heritage. “I wanted to reconnect with my Māori roots because growing up I didn’t have that connection,” Valetta explains. 

My nan was of the generation that was punished for speaking Māori at school. Although she didn’t teach us Māori, she did farm and fish by the moon, the way our ancestors did, and she did pass that knowledge onto us. It filtered down in other beautiful ways. We did have that earth and moon connection.”  

Based in Motueka valley, Matariki Mushrooms grew out of the couple’s strong connection to the region. “Matariki is how Mihau and I met, at a festival here at Takaka Hill,” Valetta says. 

“I was trying to find the constellation for a friend of mine, and I couldn’t see it in the sky. This guy tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘it’s under the horizon over there’. And that was Mihau.”

“Matariki is something I’ve always looked forward to since I was a child,” says Mihau. “In Germany it has no meaning, but I always spotted it and it had a personal significance to me.” The constellation played a crucial role in the development of the business, after both Valetta and Mihau were forced to take a step back from their previous jobs around the birth of their second pēpi.

After Leila was born, Valetta was quite immobile, and I had bell’s palsy,” explains Mihau. “Suddenly half of my face was paralysed for about a month and I couldn’t close my eyes. I had to let go of everything for that time.” 

Using his existing knowledge of fungi, Mihau started taking Lion’s Mane, a mushroom that supports the repair of nerve cells, and discovered that the bell’s palsy improved.  

“One evening after that, I was standing there under the stars thinking ‘what next?’” he says. “Suddenly I thought, ‘I’m taking mushrooms, we’re talking so much about permaculture, now is the time.’ And at that moment I spotted Matariki for the first time that year.” And so Matariki Mushrooms was born.  

As the business evolves both Valetta and Mihau continue to learn, and are enjoying the challenge of balancing their home and work life with two young tamariki. Each wānanga is an opportunity to share their experiences and technical knowledge. Valetta enjoys teaching people the importance of a traditional Māori diet, saying: “because for us that’s a really important part of the wānanga – not just the mushrooms but reaching people, helping them feel a sense of pride in our ancestors and our ancestors’ way of eating, and reconnecting to that healthy diet, and the importance of growing your own food and sharing amongst the community.” 

Although these wānanga are currently being held in local community spaces, Matariki Mushrooms is working alongside Te Āwhina Marae’s Food Security initiative and hope to hold their wānanga on the marae when the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.