Piwakawaka Mini Te Mära Reo ~ The Language Garden

*Kumala ~ Kümala

VARIETAL NAMES: *möi - moi, *samo - hamohamo, *kanawa - kanawa, *katoto - katoto

Ipomoea batatas, Convolvulaceae (see separate etymologies of varietal names on right panel).
PROTO EASTERN POLYNESIAN [probably from a coastal Quechuan language]

Kumara were almost certainly introduced into Eastern Polynesia from Peru or Colombia as the result of an expedition setting out from the Marquesas, Tahiti or Easter Island very early in the settlement of Eastern Polynesia. Interestingly, although Easter Island may have been one of the starting points for a Polynesian expedition to Peru (the Mangareva [Gambier Islands] area is another strong possibility), the expedition would have returned to the Marquesas/Tahiti heartland of Eastern Polynesia, from where it was dispersed quite rapidly to the perophery, and, later, further afield. There is strong evidence that the kumara reached Aotearoa not long after it reached the heartland, and at least a century before it was taken to Rapa Nui. It did not reach Western Polynesia until centuries later, when Mexican varieties were introduced the camote into parts of the Pacific and Southeast Asia by the Spanish and Portugese, and other voyages took the Eastern Polynesian kumara westward. Some of the Mexican-derived varieties were adopted by Maori in the late 18th and 19th Century, and because of their larger size and greater productivity soon eclipsed the older varieties in many places.

Over the four to six hundred years the kumara was domesticated in Aotearoa, a large number of varieties were selected and cultivated. Some of these had names brought from the Eastern Polynesian homeland, and it is probable that the three which are also cognate with kumara names in Hawaii were the names of early strains of kumara from which some of the others were developed. In New Zealand's present climate the kumara rarely flowers (I have seen it in flower here only once, in Russell in the early 1960s, and in 2010 kumara flowers were again reported in parts of Northland), but the climate may have been warmer when the kumara were first introduced so some of the new varieties may have been from locally grown seedlings, and others from the products of random variations carefully selected and reproduced for particular qualities.

In additional to the older traditional names, more were coined late 18th or 19th century introductions. These included kaipäkehä "foreign food" for new, mostly Mexican-derived kumara varieties in general, and waina ("wine") for a favourite, widely cultivated large variety.

Although the etymological links between two of the names, kanawa and katoto, and their possible Polynesian antecedents are somewhat tenuous, they are interesting possibilities and worth noting nonetheless.

Kanawa is the less likely of the two, as Mäori would be the only Eastern Polynesian language to retain this word. The Proto Polynesian original was the name of a tree which was widely distributed by the original settlers, and probably carried into Polynesia from their Oceanic homeland -- the name had come down unchanged in form and virtually unchanged also in content from Proto Malayo Polynesian times. However in Proto Oceanic two other names also developed, and these are reflected in Mäori, too. One of these is *ToRu, Proto Polynesian *tou, reflexes of which are the names for Cordia subcordata in most Polynesian languages: in New Guinea it is referred to as "kerosene wood" because of the ease and vigour with which its branches burn (although it is much more esteemed for its uses for carving - kou wood is also particularly important for this in Hawaii - and construction as well as the beauty of its flowers). The flamability is reflected in a possible Maori reflex tou "to kindle, set on fire". The other name is *jasi, which in Proto Polynesian became *tahi "heartwood, including that of Cordia subcordata". The black heartwood of Cordia subcordata is particularly strong and durable, just as the white sapwood is light and flammable. In Maori this is echoed in the compound words taiki and taikaha "heartwood" and taitea "sapwood". Given the metaphorical leap from a specific tree to one of its attributes applied to any tree undergone by words derived from *jasi, it is not impossible that a similar transformation turned the dimly remembered *kanawa into a kind of kumara in Aotearoa before the name had been completely forgotten in Eastern Polynesia. There is also another possibility, which does not preclude that just mentioned, connected with the shipment of kumara to Aotearoa on the Horouta canoe. It is recounted on the page about rauaruhe, the bracken fern.

Proto Central Eastern Polynesian *katoto is also an interesting word. Almost everywhere it applies to a "Polynesian beach spurge", small coastal shrubs and trees belonging to the cosmopolitan genus Chamaesyce. The Polynesian species are endemic to Tahiti (C. atoto), the Cook Islands (C. fosbergii) and Hawaii (15 endemic species, all of which appear to be most closely connected to C. atoto, and all of which seem to be known by the related names 'akoko, koko, 'ekoko and kökömälei). They are all members of the Euphorbia family and not obviously kumara-like, but plant names may be bestowed for quite tenuous reasons just to keep the name alive, so, again, the link between the Maori and tropical Eastern Polynesian words should not be dismissed out of hand.

In addition to the kumara names certainly, probably and possibly inherited from earlier stages of the Mäori language's development, a host of locally-generated names has also been recorded, although unfortunately detailed descriptions are generally hard to find and most of the plants themselves have been allowed to die out. Thanks to the work of Dr Douglas Yen, a few were salvaged before they shared that fate and were sent to Japan for safe keeping more than 50 years ago. Those varieties are now being revived. The names recorded in the Williams Dictionary are noted below.

Reflexes of Proto Eastern Polynesian *kümala:
Rapanui: Kumara (Ipomoea batatas [Convolvulaceae])
Tahitian: 'umara (I. batatas)
Marquesan: Küma'a (I. batatas)
Hawaiian: 'uwala (I. batatas)
Tuamotuan: Kumara (I. batatas)
Rarotongan: Kümara (I. batatas)
Maori: Kümara (I. batatas)

'Uwala (Kumara) in flower, McBride Garden, Kaua'i, Hawai'i.
[A photograph of a kumara flower in Aotearoa is at the bottom of this page]

Reflexes of Proto Central Eastern Polynesian *moï "kumara cultivar":
Hawai'ian: Moï, Cultivar of kumara (Ipomoea batatas [Convolvulaceae])
Mäori: Moï, Cultivar of kumara (I. batatas)

Reflexes of Proto Central Eastern Polynesian *samo, "kumara cultivar":
Hawai'ian: Hamo, Cultivar of kumara (Ipomoea batatas [Convolvulaceae])
Mäori: Hamohamo, Cultivar of kumara (I. batatas)


PROTO POLYNESIAN *Kanawa "Cordia subcordata [Boraginaceae]", from PROTO MALAYO-POLYNESIAN *Kanawa "Cordia sp." through PROTO OCEANIC *Kanawa ~ *Kanawan "Cordia subcordata"

Tongan: Taukanave ("Flowering tree with white, double-scented flowers")
Samoan: Tau'anave (C. subcordata)
Tokelauan: Känava (C. subcordata)
Maori: Kanawa (cultivar of Ipomoea batatas [kümara - Convolvulaceae])

PROTO CENTRAL EASTERN POLYNESIAN *katoto (Chamaesyce sp. [Euphorbiaceae])

Tahitian: 'atoto (Chamaesyce atoto)
Hawai'ian: 'akoko (Chamaesyce spp. [see text for details!])
Rarotongan: Totototo C. fosbergii)
Mangaian: Kötotototo (C. fosbergii)
Mäori: Hamohamo Cultivar of kumara (pomoea. batatas [Convolvulaceae])

Other inherited names applied to kümara varieties (full etymologies on linked pages):

hutihuti, from *futi (Proto Polynesian) Musa x paradisiaca [Musaceae], cooking bananas, from Proto Malayo-Polynesian *Punti (Musa spp.)

pongi (also the name of a dark variety of taro), from *pongi (Proto Polynesian) a dark variety of Colocasia esculenta [Araceae] (taro).

pöhutukawa (primarily the name of a large coastal tree with bright red flowers), from *pöfutukava (Proto Rarotongan/Mäori) "a seaside tree".

Names for varieties of kumara unique to Aotearoa

These are the names and descriptions of the kumara varieties recorded in the Williams Dictionary of the Maori Language. Those linked by a tilde (~) are synonyms - different names for the same cultivar.

"Dark coloured": manakauri ~ makakauri ~ matakauri.

"Dark leaves and stem": konëhu ~ konehutai.

"Dark skinned varieties": anurangi ~ anutai.

"Large varieties": kengo (large, dark fleshed); whakahoro [Williams has a cryptic note, 'possibly in allusion to the story of the "Horouta" canoe"' attached to this name, without further explanation. An everyday meaning of whakahoro is "handed down", so perhaps this variety was handed down from Hine Hakirirangi, the sister of Paoa, captain of the waka Horouta. Hine Hakirirangi was the ancestor who, it is said, nurtured and brought the kumara from Hawaikii in her sacred kete, and planted the vines at Manawaru and Araiteuru, as sustenance for the tribe.]

"Red skinned varieties": panahi (small); para-karaka; taurāpunga; teterereia; toikahihatea; toromahoe.

"Red varieties": käwau; kohuorangi (small)kura (this variety was reserved for tohunga [priests] and ariki [paramount chiefs]).

"Small varieties": pīhā, waihā.

"Superior varieties": hïtara; köherehere (with wrinkled skin).

Qualities unspecified: akakura, anutipoli, aorangi, arikaka,. hakinono ~ nonomea, häwere, hinamoremore, home, huiupoko ~ waniwani, hutihuti, ihipuku, kaeto, kahutoto, kaihaka, kaikäkä (also tötara heartwood), kaipo, kairorowhare, kakarikura, kanohi paua, kaoto, katokato, katoto, kakau, käuto, kautowhai, kawakawa ~ kawakawa tawhiti, kiokiorangi, kirikaraka, kökörangi, köpaka, köpüangaanga, kurarangi, kurawhakapeke,  mākakauri, makatiti, makururangi, makutu ~ parakaraka, maomao, maori, māpua, maramawhiti, matatū, matawaiwai, maukura ~ torowhenua, mengerangi, mōnenehu, nehutai, nonomea ~ nonouri, ngakau-kuri, ngako-moa, paihau kaka, pane, pāpāhaoa, papahuia, parawaipuke, paretaua, pātea, pātōtara, pāuārangi, pāuātaha, pehu (also a variety of taro, and a variety of weaving flax), pio, pipiko-kauhangaroa, pōhutukawa, pokerekāhu ~ pokerekāhua, poranga, pounamu (also a variety of yam), puatahoe, punuiarata, purata, rangiora, raumānawa, raumataki, tānehurangi, taputini, taratamata, tārehurangi, tātairongo (also later applied to tomatoes), tokoū, tukou, tukau, tutae-tara, tūtanga, tutuhanga, ururangi, weni, wini (also variety of harakeke with a dark purple edge to the leaf), huiupoki ~ waniwani.

More recently-introduced varieties

After 1769, new varieties of kumara were introduced to Aotearoa by visiting navigators, expolorers, whalers, missionaries and other sojourners and settlers. Most if not all of these were from the larger and faster-growing "camote" (Mexican) strains which the Spanish had introduced to Southeast Asia, rather than the "kumala" (Peruvian and Ecuadorian) varieties. They were thus eagerly adopted by pragmatic Mäori agriculturalists and displaced many of the until then traditional varieties. Many were given names -- one of these noted above, waina, was particularly favoured, and some of the names listed without further comment in the Williams Dictionary may also have been applied to one of these new varieties. Three varieties of kumara are listed as "Maori intellectual property" in the WAI 262 claim before the Waitangi Tribunal: hutihuti, rekamauroa and taputini. These were among those that had been collected by Dr Yen and sent for safe-keeping to Japan. DNA testing is currently being undertaken to determine during which period each of these varieties was likely to have been introduced to New Zealand. Rekamauroa (not listed by Williams or Johannes Andersen, another avid collector of Mäori plant names) is probably one of the post-contact introductions. Another variety probably from this later period and conserved by Mäori gardeners is now given the name poroporo (a Proto Central Polynesian name for certain species of Solanum, inherited by Mäori). There is a photograph of the poroporo variety in flower at the end of the gallery below.

Other terms associated with kumara.

There almost as many terms associated with the planting, growth, preparation, cultivation and storage of kumara as there are names of varieties. There is even an alternative name for the plant: mangatawhiti. A few others are:

pïwaiwai - a small kumara overlooked when the crop is lifted;
Matahi-kari-piwai - the twelth month of the Maori Year: the month for digging up these leftover kumara;
kömahi - dark-coloured flesh of kumara or potato; kömahimahi - mashed kumara;
... there are dozens more!


*Kumala gallery: The Lyon Arboretum in Honolulu and other Hawaiian botanical gardens grow many "canoe" (i.e. traditional) varieties of kumara. As you can see from the illustrations below, they have huge variation in the appearance of their leaves -- the tubers are also varied. For comparison, two "Mexican" varieties are also illustrated, one we were growing as a ground cover, and another I photographed in a family garden in the Mountain Province in the northern Philippines, where the camote was introduced by lowland traders from plants brought from Mexico by the Spanish colonizers several hundred years ago.

Heritage 'Uwala (Kumara), Lyon Arboretum, Honolulu, Hawai'i.

Heritage 'Uwala (Kumara), McBride Garden, Kaua'i, Hawai'i.

Above & below: Heritage 'Uwala (Kumara), Lyon Arboretum, Honolulu.

Above & below: Heritage 'Uwala (Kumara), Lyon Arboretum, Honolulu.



Above: Heritage 'Uwala (Kumara) Lyon Arboretum;
Below: Camote (Kumara), Banaue, Northern Luzon, Philippines.

Above: Heritage 'Uwala (Kumara), Lyon Arboretum;
Below: Modern kumara variety, Te Mära Reo, Kainui, Aotearoa.



Since kumara so rarely flower in Aotearoa, this one with the flower clearly in focus, of a Mäori heritage variety known now as poroporo (probably from one of the Mexican strains introduced in the 19th Century), merits full-page treatment. This variety flowered in the garden of Mrs Heather Martin, Omapere, Taitokerau,during the 2010 drought. Subsequently, more flowers appeared, and twin buds and the resulting flowers are pictured below the first bloom. Kumara also flowered at the Koanga Institute's Garden in the Kaipara district.



Further Information: A recent monograph, The Sweet Potato in Oceania: A Reappraisal, edited by Chris Ballard, Paula Brown, R. Michael Bourke and Tracy Harwood (Sydney: University of Sydney Oceania Monograph 56, 2005), provides extensive discussions and information on the origin of the kumara and its dispersal and cultivation in the Oceanic region. The article in this book by the late Professor Roger Green, "Sweet potato transfers in Polynesian prehistory", discusses in detail the entry of the kumara and notes the evidence for its arrival in New Zealand early in this process, and in Easter Island much later. The traditions, rituals and practices associated with the cultivation of the kumara in New Zealand are recounted in Elsdon Best's Maori Agriculture, recently reprinted by Te Papa Press, Wellington, and summarized also in Chapter XVI of volume 2 of Best's Te Maori, which can be perused on line at http://www.nzetc.org/tm/scholarly/tei-Bes02Maor-t1-body-d8.html. There is a comprehensive, 15-page profile of Cordia subcordata by J.B. Friday and Dana Okano in the "Species Profiles for Pacific Island Agroforestry" series, accessible on the web at http://www.agroforestry.net/tti/Cordia-kou.pdf. The Chamaesyce is described in the Cook Islands Biodiversity Database: http://cookislands.bishopmuseum.org/species.asp?id=5914.
Photographs: The Omapere kumara flowers and buds were photographed by Mrs Heather Martin, who discovered them on the vines in her garden. She very kindly sent a pictures to us and has allowed us to use them here. The other photographs are by RB.

Hue flower

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