Māori Plant Use

   Skip Navigation Links
Copyright © 2022

Plant Use Details 

Click to view larger image.
Podocarpus totara. Tōtara. Main reference.
FAMILY: Podocarpaceae
BOTANICAL NAME: Podocarpus totara
MĀORI NAME: TŌTARA; Te Riu o Tāne, so called because most canoes fashioned from its timber (Best 1908); amoka (South Island term. Williams 1971).

The following terms for types of totara, bark, wood etc are recorded in Best 1908, 1942. Used by Tuhoe.
Male tree: karaka
Female tree: kōtukutuku Thinner bark resembles fuchsia, hence the name.
Bark of male tree: tuanui. Thick, peels off in long strips. It is the only kind valued. (Best).
Inner bark of male tree: rangiura kiri. But Best 1942 records kiri amoko as outer bark of tōtara and mānuka.
Heartwood: taikura; taikākā; rangiura; kaikākā; whatu toto - red-coloured sound heart-wood.
Sapwood: taitea (generic term).
Honeycombed wood: matakupenga; kaikākā; tātarapō
Lighter coloured wood: komako. Soon becomes light and dry.
Timber pitted with small holes (dozy): kakapō; tātarapō; kaikākā (west coast term)
MEDICINAL: Inner bark boiled with mānuka, liquid kept in bottle for week till becomes sweetish. Used as a febrifuge (Bell 1890).
Infusion of the bitter leaves used by bushmen for stomach troubles (Kirk 1869)
Wood smoke - skin disease, women's venereal disease. Outer dry bark used for splints.(Goldie 1905; Best 1906).
In Urewera, person sits over a small, smouldering fire of tōtara chips for piles (Best 1905).
Bark used for splints with lower parts of stout green flax leaves (Colenso 1869a ; Brett's Guide 1883).

See Riley 1994 for information on medicinal uses of related plants elsewhere in the world.
FOOD: Fruit eaten. (Colenso 1869a, 1869b, 1881 ; Best 1942).
DOMESTIC: Troughs, trays. Bark skilfully made up into neat vessels for holding and carrying of water (Colenso 1869a ; Best 1942).
Bark used to cover kelp bags used for preserved muttonbirds, poha-titi (Shortland 1851).
Dry inner bark (rangiura) used to make a scoop or short handled shovel called a koko (Best 1927).
Vessels called papa and patua made of tōtara bark; papa contained preserved birds, patua - water; also used for stone boiling (Best 1903).
Used for hard stick when making fire by friction (McNeill 1990).
Wallace 1989 found 16 bowls, 2 paddles, 4 adze helves, an eel club, a teka made of tōtara among museum artefacts he tested.
CONSTRUCTION: Major timber tree. Housing, bridges, fencing, ornamental. Resists rot.(Colenso 1869b). (N.B. Details on colonial timber uses generally not part of this database).
Bark much used as a covering for houses. (Taylor 1855)
Carvings in chiefs' houses (Colenso 1869a).
Used in construction of storehouses (Best 1916).
Timber used for pā stockades - durable, easily worked (Best 1927).
FISHING AND HUNTING: Preferred tree for canoe making.
'The wood of this noble pine is red, hard, and durable, but brittle; it is preferred for canoes, and it is not unusual to see them more than seventy feet long, with a width of five or six feet, formed from a single log' (Taylor 1855)
Used for ornamental carved work of canoe sterns (Colenso 1869a).
Small corrugated water vessels made of green bark, used in catching kereru (Colenso 1892b). Bark canoes unknown among Matatua Māori (Best 1942).
In South Westland, the tōtara forests of Maitahi and Makawhio valleys provided ready source of logs for canoe building. Outriggers usually 42 ft long, with 4 ft beam (measured outstretched arms, fingertip to fingertip). Smaller canoe of 30 ft put alongside, lashed together with a sturdy floor. Sails of woven flax. Used oars rather than paddles for long sea voyages down to Piopiotahi (Milford Sound) (Madgwick 1992).
CHEMISTRY: Chemical constituents in leaves, heartwood, bark examined. Listed in Cambie 1976, 1988 with references.
PASTIME: In Best 1925: In Waiapu, thin bark used in construction of wooden trumpets, pukaea. Among Ngati-Porou, sometimes used to make gongs - pahu (Tuta Nihoniho). Use of hollow trees as gongs. Famous `sounding tree' at Te Kakau (on old bushtrack from Ruatahuna to Maunga-pohatu, a hollow tōtara called Tōtara-pakopako. Also one near Te Apu, Te Whaiti district. Captured by Whitmore in 1869 to prevent alarm being sounded (p.301).
PROVERBS: Sayings concerning tōtara in Best 1942, pp 106-107. See also section in Best 1908, p.230.
'Ruia taitea. kia tu ko taikaka anake. Shake off the sap-wood, and let the hard heart-wood only stand. In a tōtara tree.. the taitea is the outer, white or sap-wood, which soon decays, and near the centre is the taikaka or hardest wood. Meaning: Let the common people and children stay at home, and the warrioirs only go to fight.' (Colenso 1880: 137) Rae tōtara. Forehead as hard as the tōtara wood. Spoken of a liar; and of an unabashed, shameless person. Equivalent to our English Brazen-face. (ibid: 146)