*Aute [Proto Central Eastern Polynesian] ~ Aute [Māori]
*Kaute [Proto Polynesian] ~ Aute [Māori]
*Malo [Proto Polynesian] ~ Maro [Māori]
*Siapo [Proto Polynesian] ~ Matahiapo [Māori]

*Aute, *Siapo, Broussonetia papyfera, "Paper mulberry" (Moraceae)
*Malo, "Barkcloth loin garment [made from paper mulberry bast]";
*Kaute, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, "Hibiscus" (Malvaceae)

Aute, Possibly from PROTO POLYNESIAN *Kaute, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, "Hibiscus" (Malvaceae), but that word, from an earlier Eastern Central Pacific *Kaute (Hibiscus sp.) is reflected with the Proto-Polynesian meaning in Tongan, Samoan, Tahitian, Rarotongan and many other Polynesian languages (excluding Hawaiian and NZ Māori). In many parts of Polynesia Kaute is both a generic term for Hibiscus species, and denotes especially the "canoe plant" Hibiscus rosa-sinensis (carried to Polynesia from somewhere between the Celebes and Northern New Guinea). In Fijian the related term kautī denotes the endemic species Hibiscus storckii. Like the aute, the bark of many Hibiscus species is suitable for making paper-like fabric.

Proto Central Eastern Polynesian: *Aute
Tahitian: 'aute (Broussonetia papyrifera, "Paper mulberry", Moraceae)
Marquesan: Ute (Broussonetia papyrifera, "Paper mulberry", Moraceae)
Hawaiian: Wauke (Broussonetia papyrifera, "Paper mulberry", Moraceae)
Rarotongan: 'aute (Broussonetia papyrifera, "Paper mulberry", Moraceae)
Rapa and Tupuaki (Austral Islands): Aute (Broussonetia papyrifera, "Paper mulberry", Moraceae, and cloth and other products made from the bark of the tree.)
Māori: aute (Broussonetia papyrifera, "Paper mulberry", Moraceae and cloth and other products made from the bark of the tree.) Also Pimelia longifolia (Thymelaeaceae) and Hebe diosmifolia (Plantaginaceae) - see notes below.

Auke, Broussonetia papyrifera
(Lyon Arboretum, Mānoa, Honolulu, Hawai'i)
Aute Broussonetia papyrifera
(Alcock Reserve, Mt Wellington, Auckland, NZ; Photo (c) Mike Wilcox)

Proto Polynesian : *Kaute (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis[?], "Hibiscus", Malvaceae). See notes at the beginning of this page and also at the end of the commentary section.
Proto Polynesian: *Malo "Barkcloth loin garment"), from Proto Malayo Polynesian *maru, "Tree whose bast is used for barkcloth", through Proto Central Eastern Malayo Polynesian *malaw and Proto Oceanic: *Malo "Paper mulberry", Brousonetta papyrifera; barkcloth, loin cloth". See notes below.
Proto Eastern Polynesian: *Mata-Siapo, "Firstborn", from Proto Polynesian *Siapo (Broussonettia papyrifera, "Paper Mulberry", Moraceae). See notes below.

The aute is a "canoe plant", carried by the Polynesian voyagers throughout Polynesia, probably picked up by their Austronesian forebears in the New Guinea area after they had left the Philippines (although the plant is present in Taiwan, and indeed is cultivated as far north as Southern Japan).

Despite its importance in Polynesian cultures, this tree has undergone changes in name at various points of the journey, before it arrived in Polynesia and then within Polynesia itself. The oldest of these words is *malo, once a generic term for trees whose bark yielded material for cloth, and which during the sojourn in the Bismarck archipelago came to mean the aute and its products. By the time it reaches Fiji, this word has come to mean a loin cloth, skirt or kilt, a meaning retained in Samoan (malo), Hawaiian (malo), Tahitian (maro), Marquesan (ma'o), Rarotongan (maro) and Maori (maro), along with many other Polynesian languages.

As the generic term for Broussonetia papyrifera and its products, *malo survives as far as Fiji (the contemporary Bauan term is malo), but is replaced by *siapo in Proto Polynesia. It is retained with this meaning in Tongan and Niuean (hiapo) and refers to the cloth made from the aute in Samoa (siapo), where the tree itself is referred to as u'a.

That word ceases to be a plant name in Eastern Polynesia, but is retained in the derived form *matasiapo to denote a first-born child whose birth would have been greeted in distant times and places, at least, by gifts of specially crafted fabric, probably made from the bark of the aute. This meaning is retained in Hawaiian (makahiapo), Rarotongan (mata'iapo), Tahitian and Tuamotu (matahiapo); in NZ Māori the meaning shifts a little fiurther, and matahiapo becomes a generic term for precious or prized.

Tapa cloth wall hanging, National Museum, Apia, Samoa.

Although the first East Polynesians would either have brought the paper mulberry with them, or acquired it shortly afterwards from their western homeland, they adopted a completely new name for it, *aute, which survives in East Polynesian languages to denote Broussonettia papyrifera, as aute in NZ Māori and variants of this in other contemporary languages (see the list of reflexes, above). The plant would not have made it alive to Aotearoa by ocean-going canoe without considerable care -- as Elsdon Best points out (Maori Agriculture, p. 19), the presence of plants such as this is a sign of a deliberately planned settlement. Recent research has highlighted the aute as an excellent indicator of the course of Austronesian migration from Taiwan to Polynesia and elsewhere in the Pacific (see the "Further Information" section at the end of this page).

The aute is a shrubby tree with the lower parts of the stems and branches usually bare, potentially forming extensive clumps, and growing between 5 and 10 metres high. The oval leaves vary in shape, sometimes undivided and tapering to a point, at other times the oval leaf may divided like the palm of a hand with between two to five lobes, also oval and tapering. The tree has a bark which provides excellent fibre for making paper-like cloth (tapa), which is why the plant was carried throughout the Pacific by the first settlers. It is native to China and Japan, and possibly also to Burma and Thailand. It has separate male and female flowers, borne on different trees, but was generally propagated by cuttings in Polynesia as even in Hawai'i female plants seldom if ever bore fruit.

In Aotearoa, aute was introduced in the early stages of settlement: Te Rangi Hiroa notes that it was one of the plants brought with her and cultivated by Whakaotirangi, the wife of Hoturuoa, Captain of the Tainui canoe. The tribal god Ihungaru, brought from Hawaiki to the Rotorua area at much the same time on the Arawa canoe, was represented by a lock of human hair braided with aute bark.

Aute needed to be carefully looked after, but grew well enough in the Northern half of the North Island to be used for making clothes, like the maro aute, a kilt or skirt, and also in making kites, appropriately named manu aute (aute birds), and as part of earrings and other artifacts. The bark was prepared in the traditional Polynesian manner, with beaters similar in style to those used in Tonga and Samoa. The more abundant and easily accessible harakeke (Phormium tenax) seems soon to have overtaken it as the primary source of material for fabrics, and Te Rangi Hiroa thinks that the continued cultivation and use of aute, in the Bay of Islands and parts of the East Coast, was motivated more from sentiment than necessity or its practical value. Captain Cook noted the presence but rarity of the plants in those areas. Although the manufacture of cloth from the plant, and its cultivation seems to have ceased entirely early in the 19th Century (as lamented in a poem quoted below), its name lives on in a number of proverbial sayings. One of these, "He aute tē awhea" (The aute is not disturbed) [M&G #369] is incorporated in a regional pēpeha:

Haere mai ki Hauraki, ki te aute tē awhea.
Welcome to Hauraki, where the paper mulberry is not disturbed. (M&G #369)
This characterizes Hauraki as a safe and tranquil destination. After the bark had been beaten into cloth, the aute had to be allowed to dry in a still place where it would not be blown about by the breeze or subjected to sudden gusts of wind.

Its rarity is highlighted in the saying:
Te aute tē whawhea
The aute will not go around. (M&G #2275)
In other words, there's not enough to make something to wrap around the body: the resources are inadequate. As it became rare, the cloth came to symbolize high status and chieftanship; even a headband of aute was a sign of high rank.

Aute was one of those plants that people grew close to their houses, and in this proverb represents the continuing influence of the cultivator through his kin who like the aute would remain there even after his demise:

He aha koa au ka mate, tēnā te aute i whakatōkia e au ki te tara o te whare.
It is of no matter if I die, there is the paper mulberry tree I planted by the side of the house. (M & G #331)
This saying is attributed to Pokere, a great Ngati Whanaunga chief, before he was killed by Ngapuhi, indicating that his family would survive to avenge his death.

In a lament for his deceased son in which the poet also comments on the havoc wrought by ill-applied technological change, the aute stands as a symbol of earlier and better ways, and the paraikete (woollen blanket) represents the new order of gunpowder and disruption:

Koia te kautiti
Te taupaki o Kupe,
He kiri aute,
He kiri paraikete,
Kei a Te Roruku mā.
[Oft told too, in the legend of Kupe,
Was the cloth of the aute,
Now ye covet the paraikete clothing,
Possessed by the people of Te Roruku
(He tangi mō Tanenuiarangi, nā Hone Rongomaitu, NM 33, lines 21-5)
On a lighter note, the manu aute features in a waiata aroha (love song) by Topeora of Ngati Raukawa (NM 70, lines 19-21):
He manu aute au
E taea te whakahoro
Ki te aho tāmairo.
[I would then be as a kite aloft
Which can be hauled down
With a cord of twisted fibre.

In Aotearoa the name has also been applied to two other plants; unmodified to Hebe diosmifolia, and qualified as aute tāranga to Pimelia longifolia. The Pimelia was the source of fibre for an inferior kind of cloth, hence the name. The case of Hebe diosmifolia is more difficult to solve. The only apparent resemblance of this small Northland tree to the Broussonettia is its slender, leggy trunk, and that may indeed have earned it the Māori name. It has no other!

 Kaute -- Polynesian Hibiscus

The kaute, Polynesian hibiscus, is another canoe plant, but one which either did not make it or did not survive as an ancient Polynesian introduction in either Hawai'i or Aotearoa, although cultivated variants introduced after Captain Cook's visits to Polynesia are now found in both countries and are popularly called "Hawaiian Hibiscus". Dr Lex Thomson, founder and Director of the Savurua Botanical Garden in Fiji, and a professor at the Australian University of the Sunshine Coast, has been researching the distribution of this plant in Oceania. A question from him about the way the Samoan reflex of Proto-Polynesian *Kaute, Hibiscus species, is qualified as 'aute sāmoa in reference to the archetypical tropical species, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, in Samoa has started a very interesting correspondence and exchange of information, and led to the addition of this section focused on the Polynesian ornamental hibiscus. The traditional canoe-plant varieties of kaute (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) are still widely grown in the Cook Islands. The flowers are often double (the species is characterized by a great deal of variability, with several sizes of flower and single and double flowers sometimes being found on the same plant), but still look very similar to the specimen collected in Tahiti by Captain Cook in 1769. There are photos of both the ancient and a modern specimen from the Cook Islands biodiversity database in the gallery below.

KauteThe original reason for 'aute sāmoa being qualified that way may be because in Samoa 'aute has become a generic name for several species of Hibiscus and other shrubs with spectacular, often red flowers, which are also distinguished by qualifying additions -- there is, for example, 'aute toga, Hibiscus abelmoscus (also a Polynesian introduction) and 'aute fiti (Abelmoschus rugosus), a more recent introduction of an allied species with hibiscus-like flowers. The 'aute sāmoa probably started off as being the ancient variety of Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, with smaller flowers than other cultivars, and these days used more in medicine than for decoration. The addition of "sāmoa" probably signaled that it is regarded as the original, archetypical 'aute. There is some information about that in W. A. Whistler's Plants in Samoan Culture and, especially, his Plants of the Canoe People. However, Dr Thomson reports that these days the name "'aute sāmoa" is also used to denote some other look-alike cultivars that are more recent arrivals.

'aute Samoa leafDr Thomson also provided us with some excellent photographs of the canoe-plant Hibiscus rosa-sinensis and two endemic Fijian Hibiscus species, H. macverryi and H. storckii, which are included in the gallery following this section. He has found that the most commonly grown "'aute Sāmoa" and used medicinally these days (illustrated on the left of the paragraph above) is most probably a hybrid with H. macveryii or perhaps even a variant of that species. Among the distinctive features of H. macveryii are its intermediate leaves, divided into three lobes, and this is reflected also in the aute Sāmoa plants (as in the photograph on the right).The 'aute grown mainly for their large showy flowers are hybrids of H. rosa-sinensis with other species of Hibiscus, especially the East African H. schizopetalis.

The species bearing the Fijian cognate of the Polynesian name, kauti, is Hibiscus storckii. This specific name is treated as a synonym of H. rosa-sinensis by Albert Smith in his Flora Vitiensis Nova (Vol 2, p. 419) but it has been regarded as a separate species by other botanists, and reinstated in a recent paper by Dr Thomson. In her Polynesian Society Memoir on Fiji Native Plants, Mrs H. B. Richendra Parham notes (p. 40) that it is "Also called senitoa sometimes, as well as sequelu. This shrub is very like the H. Rosa Sinensis, but the leaves are less deeply cut on the margin, and the colouring of the petals is more truly a rose-pink."

Although Hibiscus rosa-sinensis is a very widely distributed species, carried throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific from its origins by generations of gardeners, where it came from originally is a mystery, because no truly wild populations have yet been found. To deepen the mystery, although it has been grown in many parts of Austronesia from time immemorial, no Proto-Austronesian, Proto-Malayo-Polynesian or Proto-Oceanic name can be reconstructed for it. The Proto-Polynesian name seems to have originated in Fiji, and it was probably carried into Polynesia from the Central Pacific. The Proto-Polynesian name is also reflected in the Polynesian Outlier languages in the Solomons and Vanuatu. These islands seem to have been settled or re-settled by immigrants from Western Polynesia during the great expansion to the west and east around the turn of the second millennium. William Wilson, a Hawai'i-based linguist, has done a great deal of research on linguistic evidence supporting his theory that Eastern Polynesia was actually colonized from these attols at the opposite side of the Polynesian triangle, particularly the Takuu-Luangiua area, during this period of expansion. Looking at the plant names, however, the Fiji-based linguist Paul Geraghty considers it more likely that East Polynesia was in fact settled by several waves of migration during this period, certainly including the Polynesian-speakers who populated the far outliers, but also from high islands in Western Polynesia (which presumably would include Samoa, as traditionally believed). As with the *kaute, the puzzle has yet to be solved.

There are two species of Hibiscus native to Aotearoa, both critically endangered. One is an annual or short-lived perennial herb, the Puarangi, Hibiscus richardsonii, found in open ground around the northeast coast of the North Island from about Hicks Bay north. Its decline has been due to grazing animals and coastal development. The other is a thorny shrub which grows in thickets in damp and swampy places in the Far North. Despite the thorns, it apparently is regarded as a very tasty morsel indeed by introduced grazing animals, which has led to a steady decline in numbers and already limited habitats. Although native to New Zealand it is also widespread through the tropics, from Africa to Central and South America, including Australia, the Philippines and some Pacific Islands. Plants are occasionally available from nurseries; it is an attractive garden plant but needs to be protected from frost. It does not appear to have earned itself a Māori name, but because of its endangered status we have included a photograph of it in the gallery, courtesy of Bill Campbell, a Northland resident and member of the NZ Plant Conservation Network.

The only Hibiscus species found in Oceania with a name that has been inherited from earlier stages of the language is the "beach Hibiscus", Hibiscus tiliaceus (Proto-Polynesian *fau). *Fau is a reflex of the Proto-Malayo-Polynesian name *baRu, also referring to Hibiscus tiliaceus, with reflexes in turn with the same meaning throughout the Austronesian world; the plant is not found in New Zealand but the name has been applied to several native species in the form of whau, whauwhau and houhere. The latter word is derived from Proto-Polynesian *Fausele, which can be interpreted as "a fau used for lashing". Several endemic Hawaiian species of Hibiscus are grouped with the derived form "Hauhele" as a primary or qualifying name; information about them is included on the page for *Fausele.


Male flowers of Aute Broussonetia papyrifera
(Photo (c) Mike Wilcox)
Female flowers of Aute, Broussonia papyrifera
(Photo (c) Mike Wilcox)
Aute, Broussonetia papyrifera
(Alcock Reserve, Mt Wellington, Auckland NZ; Photo (c) Mike Wilcox)
Palmately lobed leaves of Aute, Broussonia papyrifera
(Photograph (c) Mike Wilcox)
Aute taranga , Pimelea longifolia
(Photo (c) Mike Theisen, NZPCN)
Aute, Hebe Diosmifolia
Whatuwhiwhi, Northland (Photo (c) Bill Campbell, NZPCN)
The pressed specimen of Kaute, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis,
collected on James Cook's 1769 expedition (Photo from CINHP Database)
Larger-flowered "canoe plant" variety of Kaute, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis
(Rarotonga. Photograph (c) Gerald McCormack, Cook Islands BNHP)
Large, single-flowered traditional "canoe plant" variety of Kaute,
Hibiscus rosa-sinensis
(Tahiti. Photograph (c) Jean-Francois Butaud)
Flower of Hibiscus macverryi, Waibula River, Taveuni, Fiji.
(A possible genetic contributor to the traditional kaute.
Photo (c) Lex Thomson)
Fijian Kauti, Hibiscus storckii
(Cultivated plant, Matei, Teveuni, Fiji. Photo (c) Lex Thomson.)
The New Zealand swamp Hibiscus, Hibiscus diversifolius diversifolius
(Tauroa Point, Northland; Photo (c) by Bill Campbell, NZPCN)

Further information : There is information about the aute in Te Rangi Hiroa (Sir Peter Buck)'s The Coming of the Maori, and also passing reference in Elsdon Best's Maori Agriculture and botanical information in Wagner et al. Manual of the Flowering Plants of Hawai'i. Three recent papers underline the importance of aute in tracing the course of Austronesian migrations from Taiwan to Oceania: Chi-Shan Chang et al., "A holistic picture of Austronesian Migrations revealed by phylogeography of Pacific paper mulberry" (2015); Elizabeth A Matisoo Smith, "Tracking Austronesian expansion into the Pacific via the paper mulberry plant" (2015), and D Seelenfreund et al., "Paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) as a commensal model for human mobility in Oceania: anthropological, botanical and genetic considerations" (2010).(See Bibliography for publication details). There is also a summary of the traditional use and significance of aute, with some additional references, on the LandCare web site. Information about the Polynesian canoe-plant Hibiscus rosa-sinensis can be found in the two books by W.A. Whistler mentioned in the text; Albert Smith's Flora and Mrs Parshotam's memoir are included in the bibliography, as are papers by Paul Geraghty and Lex Thomson. A recent exposition of Professor Wilson's outlier hypothesis can be found in his article "The northern outliers-East Polynesian hypothesis expanded", Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol 127, no 4, 2018, pp. 389-423.

Photographs: We are grateful to Mike Wilcox and Mike Theisen of the NZ Plant Conservation Network for permission to use their photographs of New Zealand-grown aute (Broussonetia papyrifera); the Hawaiian and Samoan photos are by R.B., Te Māra Reo. The photographs of aute sāmoa in the text and Hibiscus storckii and H. macverryi above have been very kindly supplied by Dr Lex Thomson; the Tahitian specimen of Hibiscus rosa-sinensis was photographed by Jean-Francois Butaud of the University of French Polynesia, and those of Captain Cook's specimen and the Rarotongan specimen of H. rosa-sinensis are used with kind permission from Gerald McCormack. Bill Campbell took the photographs of Hebe diosmifolia and Hibiscus diversifolius.

Te Mära Reo, c/o Benton Family Trust, "Tumanako", RD 1, Taupiri, Waikato 3791, Aotearoa / New Zealand. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License