*Mati [Proto Polynesian]
A generic name for certain species of Ficus, especially Ficus tinctoria "Dyer's fig" (Moraceae).
This word is found throughout Polynesia, generally referring to one or more local species of Ficus. In Biblical translations it has been used in Samoan and Niuean to denote the Mediterranean domesic fig, Ficus carica.

Proto Polynesian: *Mati
Tongan: Masi Generic name for several species of Ficus, including Ficus tinctoria, "dyer's fig", and F. scabra, Moraceae.
Niuean: Mati (Ficus tinctoria & F. godeffroyi)
Samoan: Mati (Ficus tinctoria, F. uniauriculata, & F. scabra [Mati vao])
Hawaiian: Māmaki (Pipturus spp., Urticaceae)
Tahitian: Mati (Ficus tinctoria)
Tuamotuan: Mati (Ficus tinctoria)
Rarotongan: Mati (Ficus tinctoria)
Maori: Māti (fruit of Fuchsia excorticata, "Tree Fuchsia", Onagraceae)

Ficus tinctoria
Ficus Tinctoria - Mati
(Vava'u, Tonga Photo (c) Tau'olunga)
Fruit (Māti) of Fuchsia excorticata
(Aotearoa. Photo: (c) John Barkla, NZPCN)

Ficus tinctoria is the tree most commonly known in many parts of Polynesia as mati, although the name is also used generically to include Ficus scabra and other species of the genus Ficus which do not develop the abundance of "prop roots" characteristic of the banyans. (The two banyan-type figs native to Samoa, Ficus obliqua and F. prolixa, are known there as āoa.) F. tinctoria often starts out as an epiphyte, sending it roots down the trunk of the host tree and eventually strangling it. The male and female flowers are enclosed in the fleshy, fruit-like casing (technically, the caprificus) typical of figs, which becomes a genuine fruit when it has been fertilized by the appropriate species of minute wasp. Although Ficus tinctoria is not regarded as a "banyan", mati which start out as epiphytes may develop some prop roots to support them as they mature.

The fruit is edible and an important food source for people in Tokelau and other attols. It may be eaten raw, dried, or made into puddings. It is also a favourite of birds, especially pigeons, and bats.

The crushed leaves of the mati mixed with oil are sometimes applied to burns. Art Whistler (Plants in Samoan Culture) notes that the sap from the inner bark was used in Sāmoa for treating eye injuries. Elsewhere the juices and leaves have been used as a dressing for broken bones.The bast fibres were once used for making fish nets for catching sharks, and perhaps also fishing lines. Similar use was made of F. scabra, with the bark fibres also used for making a kind of tapa. In Tahiti, the crushed fruits were mixed with lime in to make a red dye (hence the English name "dyer's fig"). Ken Fern's Tropical Plant database notes that:

A scarlet dye is made from the juice of the fruit, combined with the juice of the fruit from Cordia subcordata. It is used to colour cloth and to paint faces.
A red dye is obtained from the roots.
A red dye that is used on the face is obtained from the sap.

The UN publication Agroforestry in the Pacific Islands (W.C. Clarke & R.R. Thaman, eds.) reports that "the wood [of Ficus tinctoria] is readily combustible and, as smouldering logs, even when green, it was used to carry fire about in the Solomon Islands".

In Hawaii the name seems to have been applied, in reduplicated form, māmaki, as a generic name for endemic species of Pipturus, shrubs or small trees which are members of the nettle family (Urticaceae). Fibres from the Pipturus species were used in making a brown-coloured tapa, and the leaves, bark and fruit were used medicinally: a kind of tea made from māmaki leaves [illustrated on the left] was (and perhaps still is) used as a remedy for throat and stomach troubles, along with asthma, and as a general "pick me up". (The picture to the left shows the end of a small branch of Pipturus kauaiensis, a slender-branched spreading shrub growing to about 3 metres tall, in the Limahuli Garden, Hanalei, Kauai, Hawai'i.)

In Aotearoa the name is retained, with a lengthened initial vowel, as māti, an alternative name for the fruit of the tree Fuschia, F. excorticata (the fruit is also known as kōnini). It is possible that the fruit of the Fuchsia excorticata, green to start with, dark purple when ripe (with both stages appearing on the tree at the same time), and attractive to both birds and people, reminded some of their Polynesian discoverers of the mati, thus acquiring their slightly modified local name.

Mati (and other words denoting Ficus carica) in translations of the Bible into Polynesian languages

Although the translators of the Bible into Samoan have generally followed their Tahitian counterparts and adapted the Greek or Hebrew words to denote plants mentioned in the Bible, they have departed from this precedent in the case of the domestic fig, Ficus carica, and used the local plant name mati instead. The translators into Niuean have done likewise. The Tahitian and Rarotongan translators have adopted the Greek suke, whereas the Māori, Hawaiian and Tongan use adaptations of the English "fig", piki, fiku and fiki respectively. These varying approaches are illustrated in the examples from the Old and New Testaments, below.

Judges 9:10
KJV: And the trees said to the fig tree: Come thou and reign over us.
Samoan: ‘Ona fai atu ai lea o la‘au i le mati, ‘Inā sau ia oe, e fai oe mo matou tupu.’
Niuean: Ti pehe atu e tau akau ke he mati, kia hau'a a koe ke eke mo patuiki ha mautolu.
Tongan: Pea lea ai 'a e ngaahi 'Akau ki he Fiki, Ha'u koe, 'o pule kiate ki tautolu.
Tahitian: Ua parau atura te mau raau i te suke ra, e haere ai ei arii i nia iho ia matou.
Rarotongan: Kua karanga atura te au rakau ki te suke ra, E haere mai koe, ei ariki ki runga ia matou.
Hawaiian: A laila, 'ōlelo akula nā lā'au i ka lā'au fiku, E hele mai 'oe e noho ali'i ma luna o mākou.
PT: Na ka mea nga rakau ki te piki, haere mai hei kingi mo matou.

Matthew 24:32
NRSV: From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near.
Samoan: "'Ia outou matauilia te fa'ata'oto i le mati: pe a fa'atooā tutupu ona tāputu ma matala mai ona lau, tou le iloa ai 'ua latalata le tau vevela."
Tahitian: E teie nei, ia ite outou i te tahi parabole i te suke nei. Ia oteo te omou rii e mahora a'era te rau, ua ite ia outou o ua faatata te auhune i reira.
PT: Na kia akona koutou e te piki tetahi kupu whakarite: I tona manga e ngawari ana ano, a ka puta ona rau, ka mohio koutou ka tata te raumati.

The tropical mati in the form of Ficus tinctoria shares much in common with the fig of the Bible. The trees are closely related, and have a rather similar growth habit when on the ground (F. carica is not a "strangler" fig, however) and they have very similar-looking edible fruit. The domestic fig has much more universal appeal as a fruit, however (although it fruits only in summer, whereas F. tinctoria fruits all year round), and its leaves are quite different in appearance from Ficus tinctoria and some other commonly grown species of this family, like the banyan (F. benghalensis) and allied species such as the Moreton Bay Fig (F. macrophylla).

The Polynesian mati, Ficus tinctoria, was virtually a staple food on some attols, just as its counterpart, F. carica, was in the Middle East in Biblical times. All fig species have male and female flowers inside the fleshy covering which becomes the fruit when the female flowers are fertilized. All figs are dependent on small wasps for seed production. However, the forms of Ficus carica grown in countries like New Zealand, where the necessary wasps are not found, produce an edible seedless fruit, and these can be reproduced only vegetatively.


Ficus tinctoria
Ficus tinctoria - Mati
(Rarotonga. Photo: (c) Gerald McCormack)
Ficus carica - Mati (Samoan, Tokelauan)
(Te Māra Reo. Photo: RB)
Further information : See the sources referred above, along with W. Arthur Whistler's Rainforest Trees of Samoa, Isabella Abbott's Lā'au Hawai'i, Wagner et al., Manual, Tony Foster's Plant Heritage New Zealand, along with other books on NZ and Pacific trees listed in the Bibliography (which includes bibliographic information for all the works mentioned).
Photographs: Gerald McCormack, Cook Islands Biodiversity Network (Ficus tinctoria, Rarotonga); Tau'olunga, Wikimedia Commons (F. tinctoria, Vava'u); RB (F. carica; Pipturus kauaiensis); John Barkla, NZPCN (Fuchsia excorticata).

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