*Mahuku [Proto Polynesian] ~ Mauku, Mouku [Māori]
Proto-Polynesian: A general term for grasses, sedges and other small plant species; also probably referred to overgrown fallow areas and swiddens.
Māori: The ferns Asplenium bulbiferum and Hymenophyllum spp., also Cordyline pumilo.

From PROTO POLYNESIAN *Mahuku. Possibly connected with Proto Malayo-Polynesian *zukut "grass" (Sundanese jukut "grass, vegetables", Toba Batak duhut "grass, plants", Javanese dukut "grass", Bikol du'ot "grass, lawn, weed") -- but the intermediate stages in Eastern Malayo-Polynesian languages have not been documented.

Proto Nuclear Polynesian: *Mahuku
Tongan: Mohuku (General term for grass, Poaceae)
Niuean: Mohuku (Nephrolepis hirsutula "Sword fern", Oleandraceae)
Samoan: Ma'u'u, (Grass and weeds used to cover taro roots); Mau'utoga (Commelina diffusa, "Dayflower", Commelinaceae).
Marquesan: Mouku (A species of rush, n.f.i.)
Hawaiian: Mau'u (Fimbristylis cymosa, Cyperaceae; also a generic name for grasses, sedges and rushes.)
Tahitian: Reflex (A generic name for sedges and rushes)
Tuamotuan: Mōuku (Miscanthus floridulus, "Sword grass ", Poaceae)
Rarotongan: Mauku (Grass, rushes, hay, straw -- any ruderal plant (usually grasses and sedges) that grows as a weed, particularly in taro patches, and whose only use may be for feeding animals)
Maori: Mauku, Mouku (The ferns Asplenium bulbiferum, Aspleniaceae, and Hymenophyllum spp., Hymemnophyllaceae; also Cordyline pumilo, Asparagaceae).

Asplenium bulbiferum - Mauku
(Te Māra Reo)
Hymenophyllum bivalve - Mauku
(Stokes Valley, NZ. Photo: (c) Jeremy Rolfe, NZPCN)

See the notes on the derivation of *Mahuku at the top of the page for a few possible cognates in some Western Malayo-Polynesian languages.

On this page:

Introduction (below)
Tropical mauku

This word seems originally to have been a general term for grassy herbage, that over the centuries has acquired more precise meanings in some languages such as Niuean, where it refers to a particular species of fern, and retained wider coverage in others like Samoan, Tongan and Rarotongan. Māori falls somewhere in between these extremes -- the grassy nuance is reflected in its use as a name for the tī rauriki, the mini cabbage tree Cordyline pumiluio, and the wider herbage aspect narrowed to its use as a general term for the filmy ferns (Hymenophyllaceae) and more specifically referring to two species of Asplenium, A. bulbiferum (illustrated copiously in the gallery) and A. gracillimum (pictured on the left, and below, right). Both species of Asplenium are found in shady areas on the forest floor in lowland and lower montaine areas throughout the country, with A. gracillimum particularly favouring the banks of streams, and less likely to be found in drier areas than A. bulbiferum.

Asplenium bulbiferum is noted especially for the bulbills, miniature plants perched on is fronds. These take root when the leaf drops to the ground and grow as new plants. A, gracillimum has smaller, darker fronds than A. bulbiferum, and, except in the Chatham Islands, has few if any bulbils on the leaves. Otherwise the plants appear very similar. A. bulbiferum was used traditionally in rituals to placate Tāne for the felling of forest trees to make waka. It also had many culinary uses as a vegetable and a herb. Its fronds were wrapped around tuna (eel), kererū and kūmara (and later added to bread and cooked potatoes) to add flavour. Its taste is said to be similar to asparagus. The Tūhoe people used to weave shoulder cloaks with the mature fronds to use indoors in cold weather. The fronds were also used occasionally for whāriki (sleeping mats) and some clothing. This was particularly the case in high-altitude inland areas like Ruatāhuna, where supplies of harakeke and other traditional sources of fibre were scarce, hence the whakataukī:

Ruatāhuna kākahu mauku
Ruatahuna of the mauku-fern clothes. [M&G #2176]

This was regarded by the people there as a tribute to their hardiness and versatility.

In general the filmy ferns, Hymenophyllum spp., have leaves only one cell thick, and therefore are generally found only in damp or wet environments, epiphytic on tree branches or on tree trunks and rocks. Many species curl up their leaves to mimimize evaporation in dry weather. In ideal conditions, however, they are often found in quite large numbers with their fronds fully expanded. The largest of this group is the matua mauku, Hymenophyllum dilatatum, the largest of Aotearoa's filmy ferns, an epiphyte with a distribution similar to that of Asplenium bulbiferum. Another notable member is H. sanguinolentum, one of the group of plants known collectively as piripiri -- in this case because of its pervasive scent. This plant was used for scenting hair and body oil, although George Forster, who gave the fern its specific name, appears to have thought it smelt like blood.

Mauku is also mentioned as a source of food in one of the songs from Nga Moteatea mentioned in the notes on Taramea. This may have been a reference to the fern, but it could also have been a reference to the baked root of the tī koraha or tī rauriki, Cordyline pumilio, the grassy pigmy species if tī found in more open areas in forest or shrub land from the Bay of Plenty north (the flowers of this species are illustrated on the left, and the above-ground portion of plant itself is included in the gallery). This plant does have a stem, but it is usually hidden below the surface. Its long rhizomes are rich in sugars and like the Polynesian tī pore (C. fruticosa) and local species its roots were baked in an umu (earth oven) or hāngi and served as a dessert. They are also sweet enough to be eaten raw, but those of the other New Zealand species were usually dried and cooked before eating.


As noted above, Asplenium bulbiferum is one of the ferns which were used as green vegetables. These were grouped together as pikopiko, the term applied very young fronds: "fiddle heads" in English.The word is a reduplication of the word root piko "crooked, bent", from Proto-Polynesian *piko, derived ultimately from Proto-Austronesian *piku', also thought to have meant "crooked" or "bent". But as a plant name, pikopiko seems to be unique to Aotearoa, and used only for fiddleheads. It is the main name for the fern Polystichum neozelandicum s. zerophyllum (formerly known as P. richardii), and also applied to the edible young fronds of the piupiu (Pneumanopteris pennigera), kiokio (Parablechnum novaezelandiae), paretao (Asplenium oblongifolium), and rereti (Blechnum chambersii).

The Polystichum variety of pikopiko is a rather prickly fern in mature form, although the newly emerging fronds are tender. Its fronds can be 50 cm or more in length and varying shades of green, from a dark blue-green to lighter olive shades. It grows in marginal areas, on the edge of forests and scrub land and among rocks, throughout Aotearoa. The rereti or nini (Blechnum chambersii) frequents stream banks; it has narrow, elongated fronds tapering at both ends, up to 50 cm long and 10 or 12 cm wide at the widest point.

Tropical mauku

There are just a few plants specifically referred to by words cognate with mauku in other Polynesian languages. Those listed in the etymology section are briefly described here.

The fern Nephrolepis hirsutula, "the hairy sword fern", is widely distributed in the Pacific, although it is classed as a naturalized garden escape in Hawai'i, and questionably native in Rarotonga. A similar fern long given this name and found in the Kermadec Islands is now known as N. brownii; both names are recognized as legitimate in the Kew Gardens plant names database. N. hirsutula is known as mohuku in Niue, where the scales from the midrib are used to treat the scab from circumcision; the same practice is followed in Mangaia and some other islands of the Cooks group, where it is known as tūroutou. The plants grow to about a metre high, and are found in disturbed places and open forest.

Commelina diffusa, mau'utoga in Samoa and mauku vai in Rarotonga, illustrated on the left, is a blue-flowered succulent, sprawling herb, widespread in the tropics and frequenting damp areas along roadsides, near taro patches (where it can become a nuisance) and in ditches and disturbed places in the forest. It is thought to have been an early introduction to Samoa, Tonga and islands to the west, and spread after European contacts to the rest of tropical Polynesia (Captain Cook collected it in Tonga in 1773).

Fimbristylis cymosa, the "button sedge", is native to Hawai'i, where it grows along sandy beaches and among rocks and cracks in lava where soil has accumulated. It is known as mau'u 'aki'aki, and also simply mau'u, so it can represent in this list the many Hawai'ian grasses and sedges that are called mau'u followed by a qualifying term. Like many tropical grasses, it is widely distributed throughout the Pacific, including Australia, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Another pan-tropical plant, the "silver grass" or "sword grass" Miscanthus floridulus, is sometimes known simply as mauku in the Tuamotus. It grows up to 3 metres tall, has very sharp leaves, and is classed as a native plant throughout tropical Polynesia. The sharp leaves notwithstanding, it is very useful for thatch, and the flower stalks have a variety of uses from fencing to fire-starters. In most places, including the Tuamotus, it is commonly known by a word derived from Proto-Polynesian *kākaso (the Maori reflex, kāhaho, is the word for the flower stalks of grasses like toetoe).


Asplenium bulbiferum - Mauku
(Showing unfurling frond, pikopiko)
Hymenophyllum malingii - Mauku
(Photo: (c) Jane Gosden, NZPCN!)
Asplenium bulbiferum - Mauku
(Portion of frond, with bulbils)
Asplenium bulbiferum - Mauku
(Detached bulbil, beginning its independent life)
Asplenium bulbiferum - Mauku
(Centre of plant, showing still furled frond - pikopiko)
Cordyline pumilio - Mauku, Tī koraha
(Photo: (c) Peter J. de Lange, NZPCN)
Austroblechnum chambersii - Rereti (Showing young fronds,
pikopiko. Photo: (c) Rowan Hindmarsh-Walls, NZPCN)
Fimbristylis cymosa - Mau'u
(Sand Island, Hawai'i. Photo: (c) Forest & Kim Starr, Starr)
Polystichum novaezelandicum s zerophyllum - Pikopiko
(Only the young fronds are tender. Photo: (c) Jeremy Rolfe)
Nephrolepis hirsutula - Mohuku (Niue)
(Photo: (c) Gerald McCormack, CIBD)
Further information : The general and more specialized works listed in the Bibliography will provide material on New Zealand and tropical plants. Of particular use will be Patrick Brownsey and John Smith Dodsworth's New Zealand Ferns and Allied Plants, Andrew Crowe's Field Guide to Native Edible Plants, and Murdoch Riley's Herbal. There are also excellent fact sheets and photographs relating to the various species mentioned on the NZ Plant Conservation Network and NZ Flora web sites. See also David Palmer's Hawai'i's Ferns and Fern Allies, the Cook Islands biodiversity database, and Art Whistler's Ethnobotany of the Cook Islands for more information about Nephrolepis hirsutula.

Photographs: The pictures of Asplenium gracillimum (plant and detail of frond) and Cordlyine pumilio flowers inset in the text are by the late John Smith-Dodsworth, (c) NZPCN; our thanks to his son, Sir David Smith-Dodsworth, for permission to use his photographs. The inset photographs of Comminella diffusa are by Gerald McCormack, (c) Cook Island Biodiversity Database. The photographs of Asplenium malingii and Austroblechnum chambersii in the gallery are reproduced under the NZPCN Creative Commons non-commercial licence, pending personal permission from the photographers, Those of Asplenium bulbiferum are from Te Māra Reo, by RB. We are grateful to the photographers of the of the other plants included in the gallery for permission to use their photographs on the Te Māra Reo web site.

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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