Piwakawaka Mini Te Mära Reo ~ The Language Garden

Cyathea species, (Cyatheaceae)


Plantlife Fragment


This name probably originated in Tahiti or the Marquesas, as it is shared, in slightly different forms, by Hawaiian, Tahitian and Mäori, in all cases referring to endemic species of tree ferns, but extended to include a recent introduction, Cyathea cooperi, in Tahiti. The proto-form is reconstructed as referring to Cyathea species, as it was applied to the mamaku (Cyathea medullaris) in Aotearoa and Tahiti, and in Hawai'i refers especially to Sadleria cyatheoides. Although the latter fern is botanically a member of a very different family (the Blechnaceae), it is sufficiently reminiscent of the Cyatheas to have been given a specific name meaning "resembling a Cyathea" by the botanist G. L. Kaulfuss in his 1824 work Enumerato Filicum.

The Rarotongan cognate listed in the panel opposite is probably an acquisition in historic times from Tahitian, or possibly NZ Mäori, because it refers only to an introduced species of Cyathea, not the native ones. Cyathea medullaris, the New Zealand mamaku, is found natively in Aotearoa, Fiji, and parts of Polynesia, and Cyathea smithii is an Australian species native to New South Wales and Queensland. Both these plants are used widely in horticulture and are now found in gardens around the world. C. smithii was also introduced to Hawaii, where it has become something of a menace to the indigenous flora.

The New Zealand mamaku is discussed on the linked page, so the Hawaiian 'ama'u will be the focus of attention here. This short tree fern was a very important plant in traditional Hawaiian life (the trunk often reaches less than 2 metres when mature, although some are double that height, but the fronds can be up to 3 metres long). Firstly, David Malo in his Hawaiian Antiquities notes that the places where it grows best were also considered the most suitable for cultivation, and the name ma'u (the word root from which mamaku/'ama'u is formed) was applied to this level of the mountainside. He also mentions its value as a food in times of famine -- both the tender young leaf-shoots and the pithy flesh within the trunk were eaten. The leaf stalks were also used to mark tapa with a red dye obtained from the outer edge of the trunk, while a glue for the tapa was also extracted from the fronds.

Perhaps even more significantly, the 'ama'u was regarded as a manifestation of the demigod Kamapua'a, who also manifested himself as a pig, and was a persistent suitor of the volcano goddess Pele. Indeed, the name of the huge Halema'uma'u ("House of the 'ama'u ferns") crater in the caldera of Kilauea volcano is named after Kamapua'a wooing Pele in his tree fern guise.

The fern was also a valuable source of mulch (from the dried fronds), as well as being used for thatching roofs and walls of houses and for making temporary shelters. Daniel Palmer (Hawaií's Ferns) quotes two interesting sayings connected with the 'ama'u:

Huli ka lau o ka 'ama'u i uka, nui ka wai o kahawai",
"When the leaves of the 'ama'u turn towards the upland, it is a sign of flood"

(The wind is blowing the rainclouds towards the mountains as well as the leaves.)

The other saying, pepe'e palaholo -- "a rolled up frond of 'ama'u" [which provides the glue to stick the pieces of tapa together] -- essentially means that from little things come great results.

Tahitian: mama'u (Cyathea medullaris & C. cooperi -- Cyatheaceae)
Hawaiian: ma'u, ma'uma'u, 'ama'u, 'äma'uma'u (Sadleria cyatheoides, S. pallida, S. wagneriana & S. souleyetiana -- Blechnaceae)
Rarotongan: mamaku (Cyathea spp.)
Maori: mamaku (Cyathea medullaris -- Cyatheaceae)

Note: The Rarotongan cognate may be a later acquisition from Tahitian. See text opposite.

Cyathea medullaris, mamaku (Waitakere Ranges, Auckland, Aotearoa)

Halema'uma'u Crater, Kilauea, Hawaii, where the demigod Kamapua'a in the form of the 'ama'u fern courted the goddess Pele.

Sadleria cyatheoides ('ama'u), Haleakala National Park, Maui, Hawai'i.

Sadleria cyatheoides ('ama'u) emerging from the brush, Switchback, Haleakala National Park, Maui, Hawai'i.

Sadleria pallida ('ama'u) frond

Cyathea cooperi (known as mama'u in Tahiti and mamaku in Rarotonga) -- this species has been introduced to Polynesia from Australia.

Further information. There are interesting notes on the traditional and contemporary significance of the 'ama'u, as well as information about the plants themselves, in Daniel Palmer's Hawaiian Ferns and Kathy Valier's Ferns of Hawaii. There is also an informative web page with more photographs on the University of Hawaii's botany department web site. The Hawaiian Ecosystems at Risk (HEAR) Project website has some photographs and disquieting information about the highly invasive Cyathea cooperi.
Photographs: The photographs of the Sadleria species are by Forest and Kim Starr (Hawaii). That of Cyathea cooperi is by Hedwig Storch and the photograph of Cyathea medullaris is by "Kahuroa", both deposited in the Wikipedia Creative Commons database. The photograph of the Halema'uma'u crater is by RB.

Hue flower

Te Mära Reo, c/o Benton Family Trust, "Tumanako", RD 1, Taupiri, Waikato 3791, Aotearoa / New Zealand
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