*Ngaio [Proto Central Eastern Polynesian] ~ Ngaio [Māori]
Myoporum spp., "False Sandalwood" (Scrophulariaceae).
This name appears to have originated in Eastern Polynesia, before the settlement of Hawaii and Aotearoa .

Proto Central Eastern Polynesian: *Ngaio
Hawaiian: Naio (Myoporum sandwicense "Bastard sandalwood", Scrophulariaceae)
Tuamotuan: Ngaio (Myoporum stokesii, Scrophulariaceae)
Mangaian: Ngaio (Myoporum wilderi, Scrophulariaceae)
Rapa: Ngaio (Myoporum rapense, Scrophulariaceae)
Rarotongan: Ngāio (Myoporum wilderi "Cook Island Myoporum", Scrophulariaceae)
Maori: Ngaio (Myoporum laetum, "Ngaio", Scrophulariaceae)

Myoporum sandwicense - Naio (Hawai'i)
(McBryde Garden, Poipu, Kauai)
Myoporum laetum - Ngaio (Aotearoa)
(Photo: (c) Mike Thorsen, NZPCN)


Central Eastern Polynesian: *Ngaio "A small grub or parasitic worm" (Follow link to notes below).

Throughout tropical Polynesia, the local species of Myoporum ("false sandalwood") seem to have been noted for their aromatic qualities, with the flowers used for scenting oil and the bark emitting fragrant smoke when burnt. They are similar in general appearance and habit to each other and to their New Zealand counterpart, but the latter is not noted for its fragrance.

The Ngaio in Aotearoa

The New Zealand ngaio is endemic to the North and South Islands and the Chatham Islands. It is a decumbant or erect small tree (with a tendency to be both -- with prostrate limbs giving rise to upright branches), growing to about 10 metres high. The leaves are studded with oil glands, and rubbed on the skin were found by the Maori to be an excellent insect repellent, especially effective on mosquitos and sandflies. They contain a liver toxin, ngaione, which can be fatal to browsing animals. The small white flowers, often with purple-spotted petals (as in the photograph on the left) develop in the spring and summer. The fruit is a white or reddish-purple drupe, half to 1 cm long. The rough corky bark is light-grey to brown, and the elongated leaves can be up to about 12 cm long by 4 cm wide.

The leaf buds are dark and sticky, and were used (presumably sparingly in view of their toxicity) as a remedy for sore stomachs. Infusions of the inner bark were used to treat cuts, bruises, ulcers and other skin conditions. Scraped undiluted the inner bark had (and presumably still has) analgesic propertes for treating sore gums and painful teeth. Alan Clarke (The Great Sacred Forest of Tāne, p. 319), however, reports that this latter treatment was said to be successful only if the patient stood near the tree.

According to legend, Ngaio was also taken to the moon by Rona, a harried mother who swore at the moon for hiding behind a cloud at a critical moment while she was fetching water late at night for her thirsty children, causing her to trip over a tree root on the forest path. She tried to resist by firmly clinging to a ngaio tree, but this did not save her -- the moon uprooted the tree as well. Some versions of the legend have her simply imprisoned on the moon as a warning to others, but alternative narratives say she controls the tides of Hinemoana -- the ocean -- from her lunar residence.

Ngaio is found especially along the coast, but it also grows naturally much further inland in some regions. The decumbant form is characteristic of the trees in littoral ecosystems. The leaves were once widely munched by a large flightless species of weevil, Anagotis stephenensis, but the only surviving population of this insect is on Stephens Island in the Marlborough Sounds; elsewhere it seems to have been eliminated by the Polynesian rats (kiore) once they became established. A similar fate seems to have befallen the related flax weevil, A. fairburnii, which has a taste for harakeke (Phormium tenax), also now confined to a few off-shore islands.

The Ngaio/Naio in Tropical Polynesia  

The Hawaiian species, M. sandwicense, has distinct local varieties, some of which Wagner et al. consider might be treated as separate species, although they do not do this in their Manual. Its range was thought to extend as far as the Cook Islands, but the Cook Islands Biodiversity Database treats the forms found on Mangaia and Rarotonga as a separate species, M. wilderi. However Wagner et al. (Manual of the Flowering Plants of Hawaii) and Arthur Whistler (Ethnobotany of the Cook Islands, p. 362) group it with the Hawaiian species. Like the New Zealand species, those trees growing near the coast tend to be decumbant. They can grow to 10 m or higher as an erect tree.

When dry or burnt, the wood of M. sandwicense and allies is reminiscent of sandalwood (Santalum freycinetianum, Santalaceae). David Malo describes naio as "a sweet scented wood of great hardness" (Hawaiian Antiquities, p. 21). When the commercial stocks of Hawaiian sandalwood were exhausted in the 1820s. an attempt was made to substitute naio as an export, but fortunately for that tree and its environment the wood was not accepted in China. Bruce Bohm (Hawaiian Native Plants, p. 112) notes that whole sections of forest were set alight to ascertain (from the fragrant smoke) whether there was sandalwood present. Naio clearly had a lucky escape from a similar path to near-extinction. It was the preferred wood for house frames in traditional Hawaiian houses.

The Hawaiian Myoporum is found especially in arid or dry ecosystems, both coastal and inland. Its flowers are white, or tinged with lavender. F.W. Christian, in his Vocabulary of the Mangaian Language (p.19), notes that "the ancient Mangaians made a scented oil from the [ngaio] tree, which they used for annointing and preparing corpses for mummifying". The flowers were also used to scent oil in Rarotonga, where the tree may once have been specially cultivated for this purpose.

Beatrice Kraus (Plants in Hawaiian Medicine) reports the use of the leaf buds of the Hawaiian species as part of a mixture administered to women experiencing difficult childbirth (pp. 18-19); a dried powder from naio mixed with other ingredients as a remedy for growths on the nose (p. 39); the leaf buds and leaves as components in a mash from which a remedy for asthma was decanted (p.92); and ashes of naio wood as one of the components of a mixture to treat "consumption" with a high fever (pp. 117-8). Murdoch Riley reports analogous uses for the New Zealand ngaio in traditional and folk medicine.

Other meanings of Ngaio (Māori) and Naio (Hawaiian) Another Proto Central Eastern Polynesian "*ngaio" is reconstructed in the Pollex database, glossed as "threadworm, grub". This is one of those parallels between Hawaiian and Māori, too numerous to be mere coincidence, but whether the direct result of common inheritance, or the product of the same kind of creative imagination is a question hard to resolve. In this case however there is a probable intermediate link provided by Marquesan, which does not have a cognate word for the ngaio tree, but does have a slightly irregular probable cognate for this other kind of "ngaio":

Marquesan: Kai'o "A kind of very small worm (vers) which is found in the human body; a very small grub (vers) which appears in time of rain. (Dordillion's Dictionnaire; the entry is slightly ambiguous, because vers in French can refer to worms, grubs or insect larvae).

Hawaiian: Naio "(1) Pinworm, as in the rectum; white specks in feces; larvae, as of mosquitos; worm in dung or taro. (Pukui and Elbert, Dictionary, 1986 edition).

Māori: Ngaio: (2) A small grub; also parasitic worm (Gordian worm) found in the kōkopu fish, kākā bird, and wētā; (3) Restless; (4) Deliberate, thorough; (5) Expert, clever; (6) Look at carefully; (7) draw figures or patterns | whakairo. Whakangaio (1) sport with, trick; (2) dissemble. (Williams, Dictionary, 1971 edition)

Proto-Polynesian "ng" is regularly reflected by "ng" in most dialects of New Zealand Māori, "k" in Marquesan (and South Island Māori), and "n" in Hawaiian (and Tūhoe Māori). The irregularity in the Marquesan kai'o is the addition of a glottal stop between the vowels; such irregularities in otherwise well-attested forms are not unknown, but are nevertheless cause for suspicion as to the origin of the word concerned. Whether or not there is a link between "ngaio" the insect-repellent tree and "ngaio" the larva, is difficult to determine. I suspect that they are different words, as there does not seem to be any association between a worm or insect larva and the ngaio tree, unlike for example the mokoroa which bores into the kahikatea. Nevertheless, the extensions of meaning of ngaio in Māori are particularly interesting, whether it is a single multivalent word, or a set of homonyms, as they seem to represent a "stream of consciousness" series of metaphorical jumps, which may indeed have been reinforced by the wizened appearance of the mature tree, perhaps suggesting wiliness or wisdom. However it is the parallel with whakairo, "to ornament with a pattern, used of carving, tatooing, painting, weaving", which seems to be most relevant. That word is derived from iro "maggot, thread-worm", and in its reduplicated form, whakairoiro, means both "ornamented" and to "deal crookedly, be deceitful". Taken together with the ramifications of ngaio, it is as if an idea or attitude can develop like an insect larva or wriggle its way worm-like into consciousness or behaviour, resulting in creative work and action, either socially beneficial or deliberately deceptive. (Māori iro and the cognate Hawaiian word ilo are derived ultimately from Proto Austronesian *qulej "a type of small worm", but the Hawaiian word does not have the extended meanings of its Aotearoan counterpart.)


Folige of Myoporum sandwicense - Naio
(Lyon Arboretum, Mānoa, Honolulu)
Foliage of Myoporum laetum - Naio
(Port Munning, Chatham Islands, NZ. Photo: (c) Peter de Lange)
Mature tree, Myoporum sandwicense - Naio
(Pu'u o Kali, Maui, Hawaii; Photo: (c) Forest & Kim Starr)
Mature tree, Myoporum laetum - Ngaio
(Otago Peninsula, NZ; Photo (c) John Barkla, NZPCN)
Flowers and unripe fruit, Myoporum sandwicense - Naio
(P'unene, Maui, Hawai'i; Photo: (c) Kim & Forest Starr)
Young shoot emerging from trunk of mature tree, Myosporum laetum - Ngaio
(Note oil glands on upper surface of leaves. Te Māra Reo, Waikato, NZ)
Further information : Full publication details of all the works cited in the text, along with references other works on NZ and tropical plants, will be found in the Bibliography. There are also pages with information about the New Zealand Ngaio, and related species: Myoporum semotum (confined to some of the Chatham Islands) and M. rapense subsp. kermadecense (endemic to the Kermadec Islands), on the NZ Plant Conservation Network web site. (See also below.)
Photographs & Acknowledgements: We are indebted to Mike Thorsen, Peter de Lange, Jeremy Rolfe (Ngaio flower inset in the text), and John Barkla of the NZ Plant Conservation Network, along with Kim and Forest Starr of Starr Environmental, Maui, Hawaii, for permission to use their photographs. Those not attributed are by R.B., Te Māra Reo. Thanks are also due to Robert Vennell of the Auckland Museum, for a query which precipitated the production of this page and stimulated the discussion of the possible links between Ngaio the tree and Ngaio as possessing expertise; there is an informative and well-illustrated section on the ngaio (Myoporum) on his Meaning of Trees web site, which includes a picture of the rare and endangered ngaio weevil.

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