*Kotuku [Proto Central Eastern Polynesian]

Kōtuku ~ Kōtukutuku

Kōtuku (Rarotonga) Mussaenda raiateensis, "Pacific Flag Tree" (Rubiaceae);
Kōtukutuku (Aotearoa) Fuchsia excorticata, "Kōtukutuku, Tree Fuchsia" (Onagraceae);
Kōtuku (Aotearoa) Gleichenia microphylla, "Swamp umbrella fern" (Gleicheniaceae).


As plant names, the Rarotongan and New Zealand Māori words may be linked, or may have originated separately. See notes below.

Possibly linked to Proto Central Eastern Polynesian *Kotuku "Reef heron ", Egretta sacra (Ardeidae) through:
Proto Rarotongan/Maori *Kōtuku "Pacific Flag Tree", Mussaenda raiateensis (Rubiaceae)

Mussaenda raiateensis - Kōtuku
(Rarotonga. Photo (c) Gerald McCormack!)
Fuchsia excorticata - Kōtukutuku
(Aotearoa. Photo: John Sawyer (c) NZPCN)

Egretta sacra - Kōtuku
(Rarotonga. Photo: (c) Gerald McCormac)

Egretta alba modesta - Kōtuku
(Aotearoa. Photo: Department of Conservation NZ)

Mangarevan: Kotuku (Egretta sacra "Reef heron", Ardeidae)
Tahitian: 'ōtu'u (Egretta sacra" Reef heron", Ardeidae)
Tuamotuan: Kōtuku (Grey variety of Egretta sacra, Ardeidae)
Rarotongan: Kōtuku (Egretta sacra, "Reef heron", Ardeidae)
Māori: Kōtuku (Egretta alba modesta "Kōtuku, White heron", Ardeidae)

Māti, kōnini, hōnā, tākawa are names for the fruit of the kōtukutuku (see notes below).
Kōhutuhutu is an alternative name for kōtukutuku.
Alternative names for the kōtuku fern are waewaekōtuku, tapuwae kōtuku, waewaekākā, waewaematuku, and matua-rauaruhe.

The kōtukutuku, the New Zealand tree fuchsia, towers above all the other members of its genus. A mature tree may be 14 metres high, with a trunk almost a metre in diameter. It has a flaky outer bark, and a smooth inner bark. Since two other trees with similarly flaky bark, the kawaka (Libocedrus plumosa) and the female variety of the tōtara (Podocarpus totara) are also occasionally called kōtukutuku, it is possible that the name derives from this quality of "letting go" (tukutuku) of the bark. On the other hand, those trees could have earned their alternative names because of the similarity of their bark to that of the kōtukutuku in this respect. That would leave open the possibility that the fuchsia's local name is linked directly or indirectly (through the Rarotongan kōtuku tree) to that of an avian kōtuku, either the local Great White Heron, Egretta alba modesta, or the Polynesian Reef Heron, Egretta sacra.

The flowers are blue-green when they first open, changing to red as they mature. Male and female flowers often appear on separate trees, but some trees have dioecious flowers (i.e. flowers which are bisexual). The berries are green to start and deep purple or almost black when ripe. The sweet ripe berries were widely eaten by Māori, and used for making jam making by early European settlers. Māori also made a sweet drink from the juice. Like all fuchsias, the fruits are also big favourites with birds. The watery sap of newly cut slim branches can also be drunk a bit like sugarcane juice. The leaves are deep green, with silvery undersides and grow to about 10 cm in length. The tree grows throughout the country, is often found along stream banks and may be a dominant tree in secondary forest.

The kōtukutuku is almost unique among New Zealand trees for being truly deciduous by mid-winter in most parts of Aotearoa. This quality is captured by the whakataukī

"I whea koe i te ngahorotanga o ngā rau o te kōtukutuku?"
"Where were you at the falling of leaves from the kōtukutuku?" [Meade & Grove 879]
(That is, did you turn up at harvest time without having helped prepare the ground for planting?)

and the timing in another saying:

Kua huri te rau o te kōtukutuku, kua waenga ki ngā hē.
"When the leaves of the fuchsia have turned, it is half-way to the troublesome times". [M&G #1674]
(When the kōtukutuku leaves change colour, it is half way through winter; food stores are starting to run out as the scarcity of Spring approaches.)

Kōnini and Māti.

The importance of the fruit of the kōtukutuku in traditional Māori diet is shown by the number of words relating specifically to its fruit. Two of these, māti and kōnini, reflect plant names inherited from the Polynesian roots of te reo Māori. Māti is derived from Proto-Polynesian *mati, denoting the Polynesian fig Ficus tinctoria and allied species (see the linked page for more information about this word and its modern reflexes).

Kōnini seems to be derived from an Eastern Polynesian name for the "sea grapes" seaweed, Caulerpa racemosa (Caulerpaceae), illustrated on the left:

Marquesan: Konini (Physalis peruviana, "Cape Gooseberry", Solanaceae);
Rapa: Konini (Caulerpa racemosa, "Sea Grapes", Caulerpaceae);
Tahitian: 'onini (Probably Caulerpa racemosa); cf. Onini "first-forming fruit after blossom falls";
NZ Māori: Kōnini (fruit of Fuchsia excorticata).

The Marquesan name may be the re-use of the older name for the seaweed to denote the exotic "Cape Gooseberry", a Peruvian plant introduced into Polynesia very soon after contact with European and American explorers and navigators -- it is known to have been in Hawai'i before 1825, and may have been introduced into the Marquesas much earlier. The cape gooseberry is now known in Tahiti and the Cook Islands as Tūpere or Tupera (adaptations of English "gooseberry"), and in Hawaii as Pohā. The use of the word kōnini as the name for the fruit of the Fuchsia may be an analogy with the appearance of the sea grape, or based on the Tahitian variant to designate a developing fruit, possibly once distinct from māti as a name for the ripe fruit.

Mussaenda raiateensis - the Pacific Flag Tree

The Rarotongan plant name Kōtuku has been bestowed on Mussaenda raiateensis (the Pacific Flag-tree). This is a upright shrub, much smaller and slimmer than the kōtukutuku. The Cook Islands Biodiversity Database notes that this tree "is scattered throughout the Slope Forest, Ridge Forest and on the edges of Fernlands. It has terminal bunches of opposite, large, velvety leaves (< 20 cm). During summer the large, white sepal, associated with each yellow flower, is visible from afar. The Māori name notes the resemblance of the white sepal to the white form of the Kōtuku (Reef Heron), which is rare on Rarotonga." These sepals are vaguely reminiscent of the terminal leaves of the kōtukutuku, although about twice the length and much more spectacular, but the flowers of the kōtukutuku, while very different, are equally striking and noticeable from afar. However, the link between the names may be through the kōtuku as heron rather than the trees themselves, or, as noted above, simply a coincidence, with the kōtukutuku deriving its name from the flaky bark or the falling of its leaves in the winter.

Kōtuku as a fern.

The umbrella fern Gleichenia microphylla gets its names kōtuku, waewaekōtuku ("heron feet") and tapuwae kōtuku ("heron footprints") from the kōtuku as a bird, probably the locally present White Heron, Egretta alba modesta, which in turn had been named after the smaller Pacific Reef Heron, Egretta sacra. Other observers found a resemblance to the feet of the makutu (bittern) and the kākā (a NZ native parrot) respectively. Perhaps because the Gleichenia grows in the marginal areas, generally in swampy or poor clay soils, in much the same way as the rauaruhe (Pteridium esculentum, bracken) occupies cleared areas and vacant land, it has also been given the name matua-rauaruhe "parent (or forerunner) of the rauaruhe". H.B. Dobbie notes that this fern "is sometimes found among light scrub in dense interlaced masses of a bright shining green, the topmost branches straggling among the manuka with sprays of delicate green tracery, presenting to the eye one of those unstudied groupings of plants arranged by Nature with apparent carelessness, but with a consumate skill man may never hope to attain" (Ferns of NZ, p. 38).


References and further reading: See linked pages and general works on NZ trees in the bibliography, also Murdoch Riley's Herbal for more information about Fuchsia excorticata and the other trees mentioned. Gleichenia microphylla is described in H.B. Dobbie's Ferns of New Zealand, and in Brownsey and Smith Dodsworth's New Zealand Ferns and Fern Allies. The NZ Plant Conservation Network website has pages on all the New Zealand plants mentioned. Information about the kōtuku as a bird can be found on the NZ Department of Conservation and the Cook Islands Biodiversity Database websites. The Cook Islands Database also has pages on Mussaenda raiateensis and Caulerpa racemosa.

Photographs: We are grateful to Gerald McCormack (Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust), along with John Sawyer, Jeremy Rolfe and Peter de Lange of the NZ Plant Conservation Network for permission to use their photographs. The picture of the NZ winged kōtuku (Egretta alba) is from the Department of Conservation website.

Fuchsia excorticata - Kōtukutuku
(Aotearoa. Photo: (c) Jeremy Rolfe, NZPCN)

Trunk of Libocedrus plumosa - Kawaka
(Aotearoa. Photo: (c) Peter deLange, NZPCN)
The bark of this tree and the tōtara
is associated with the kōtukutuku.

Trunk of Podocarpus totara - Tōtara
(Te Māra Reo, Aotearoa)
Fuchsia excorticata - Kōtukutuku
(Aotearoa. Photo: (c) Jeremy Rolfe, NZPCN)
Fuchsia excortivata - Kōtukutuku
(Aotearoa. Photo: John Sawyer (c) NZPCN)
Gleichenia microphylla - Waewaekōtuku
(Aotearoa. Photo: Jeremy Rolfe (c) NZPCN)
Gleichenia microphylla - Waewaekōtuku
(Aotearoa. Photo: Jeremy Rolfe (c) NZPCN)

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