*Pūfā [Possibly Proto Central Eastern Polynesian] ~ Pūhā, Pūwhā [Māori]
A word designating a wild coastal herb, probably edible.

Proto Central Eastern Polynesian or Proto-Rarotongan-Māori: *Pūfā
Hawaiian: Pūhā (Colpomenia sinuosa, "Oyster-thief" seaweed, Syctosiphonaceae)
Rarotongan: Pū'ā (Sonchus oleraceus, Asteraceae)
Moriori: Pū'ā ("Thistle", species undefined, probably Sonchus grandifolius, Asteraceae)
Māori: Pūhā, Pūwhā (A general term for "greens", especially Sonchus kirkii and introduced Sonchus species, "Sow thistle", Asteraceae)

Sonchus kirkii - Pūhā, Pūwhā (Aotearoa)
(Allan's Beach, Otago. Photo: (c) Gillian Crowcroft, NZPCN)
Colpomenia sinuosa - Pūhā (Hawai'i)
(San Diego, California. Photo: J. McKenna)

Two kinds of pūhā
Pūhā in Māori proverbs
Pūhā in Te Paipera Tapu

Two kinds of Pūhā

This is another term which may have originated in Eastern Polynesia but now has indigenous reflexes only in Hawai'i and Aotearoa. On the other hand, the Hawaiian and Māori terms could have originated independently,as they refer to apparently very different kinds of plant. The Hawaiian word denotes a species of seaweed found in rock pools and similar coastal environments, and the Māori term originally named a native sow thistle, Sonchus kirkii, also a coastal plant, but land-based and eaten in historic times, unlike its Hawaiian counterpart. There may nevertheless be a forgotten link between them, in a story or a coastal plant in Tahiti or the Marquesas with some common quality. Since the Hawaiian seaweed can be eaten, and is eaten in some parts of the world, it is possible that both kinds of pūhā served similar purposes for the first settlers of Hawai'i and Aotearoa respectively.

Apart from the fact that it was important or conspicuous enough to merit a unique name, there seems to be little of note about the Hawaiian pūhā, Colpomenia sinuosa. Kamai Aiona records only that one of his informants told him that it was "a seasonal limu [seaweed] that likes water flow", and the Pukui and Elbert Dictionary notes that it is "a brown seaweed ..., cushion-shaped, hollow, surface smooth and uneven; not eaten." The seaweed itself is widely distributed; according to Wikipedia it is commonly named the "oyster thief" or "sinuous ballweed", and in New Zealand is present around the coast of the North Island and the Marlborough Sounds. It is recorded as a native plant in the NZ Plant Conservation Network's database, but there is only the minimal taxonomic information and there are no photographs. The picture above was taken in San Diego, and the seaweed is also common around the South African coast. It is important to note that although the Hawaiian seaweed may not have been eaten in living memory, that does not mean that it was never eaten. The Wild Singapore database fact sheet on this species notes that the plant is indeed eaten by people in some parts of the world, used for animal feed, and has antibacterial and anti-tumor medicinal properties.

The fact that the seaweed is edible at least gives it something more in common with its homophonous littoral namesake, the Māori pūhā. The indigenous pūhā in mainland Aotearoa, Sonchus kirkii, also known as raurōroa (long leaves) is a herb which likes to grow near seepages on cliff faces. It has bright yellow flowers (pictured on the left), a hollow stem and thick shiny green leaves which can grow up to about half a metre long and 15 cm wide, although they are usually about a third of those dimensions. The leaves are edged with quite sharp prickles. The plant is edible and was part of Māori cuisine until largely replaced probably quite early in the 19th century by introduced species, particularly the smaller Sonchus oleraceus, with its thin, smooth leaves. That species has the alternative names rauriki ("small leaves") and pororua. It was introduced in the 1830s and rapidly naturalized; as well as being relished by people, it is also a favourite with chickens. There are two other introduced species of Sonchus, S. arvensis (with tiny, soft prickles) and S. asper (also known as raurōroa), with much sharper prickles. These are also collectively termed pūhā -- the word can also denote "greens" in general, and is used in transations of the Bible as the equivalent of English "herbs" -- see the separate section on this below.

All these species of Sonchus are edible, and although Sonchus oleraceus is usually the pūhā of choice, a particularly appropriate accompaniment to fatty pork and pork bones in a boil-up, when I was in Motatau in the Bay of Islands in the early 1960s, many people esteemed the prickly Sonchus asper, which liked to grow in stony places such as close to the railway tracks. The latex in the stems and leaves can make these plants bitter if they are not prepared properly before consumption -- the bitterness is easily removed by rubbing the stems and washing them before cooking or eating raw. Another native species, Sonchus novaezelandiae, is confined the the South Island and, oddly, the Three Kings Islands, where it is found near rocky outcrops and in stony places, both near the shore and inland. It has copious quantities of latex and does not seem to have been eaten. All these species of Sonchus have bright-yellow dandelion-like flowers, and the seeds are distributed through the air on silky "parachutes". The plants are rich in vitamin C, and the leaves or decoctions of them were used to treat wounds and skin eruptions.

There is also a species of Sonchus endemic to the Chatham Islands, S. grandifolius. It is a perennial, thistle-like plant that grows on sand dunes and coastal cliff edges. Its leaves are up to a metre long, and it has flowers which vary in colour from light purple to pale yellow. It is dormant in winter and flowers during the summer (December to February). This is probably the undefined thistle recorded with the name pūhā in the Moriori word lists. Sonchus grandifolius is making a comeback in the Chatham Islands, but the other native species of Sonchus are in decline or threatened by erosion of the shoreline (perhaps a byproduct of sea-level rise due to global warming), grazing, changes in land use, and competition from invasive exotic weeds. The mainland species Sonchus kirkii is still well-established along the sea-cliffs between Whanganui and Taranaki on the West Coast of the North Island, but even here it is adversely affected by erosion. The remarkable picture by Colin Ogle in the gallery below shows this species holding its own against two naturalized exotic relatives in this environment.

In the Pollex database the Hawaiian pūhā is regarded as a "problematic" cognate of the Māori word, but the Rarotongan pū'ā is accepted without question. However, despite the apparent differences in the plants they refer to, the Hawaian word has a much stronger claim to a direct link to a common origin with the Māori word than does the Rarotongan, which refers only to Sonchus oleraceus. That plant was introduced into Rarotonga in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and the name was probably introduced, modified to fit in with Rarotongan phonology, along with it. As in Aotearoa, it is a wild plant, cooked and eaten as a green vegetable.

Hoki atu ki runga -- Back to the top of the page.


Pūhā in Māori Proverbs

There is one whakatauākī mentioning pūhā in the Meade and Grove collection:

Ka katokato au i te rau pororua.
I am gathering the bitter leaves of the pūhā. [M&G 980]

Properly prepared, the leaves of pūhā are very tasty; if not, they may be quite bitter. Here they are used as a metaphor for receiving or anticipating criticism for an activity for which you might reasonably expect appreciation.

Hoki atu ki runga -- Back to the top of the page.


Pūhā in Te Paipera Tapu

There are four mentions of pūhā in Te Paipera Tapu. One, in the second Book of Kings, has been mentioned in connection with gathering herbs and wild gourds on the page for hue.

2 Kingi 4:39 Nā, ka haere tētahi ki te parae ki te kohi pūwhā, ka kite i te hue māori, ka kohia e ia, kī tonu tona kakahu.
2 Kings 4:39 One of them went out into the field to gather herbs; he found a wild vine, and gathered from it a lapful of wild gourds. (NRSV)

The Hawaiian translation is lau nāhele "forest/wild greenery", and the Samoan simply mea e 'ai "things to eat". The Hebrew word here is oroth, which Michael Zohary identifies as referring to garden rocket, Eruca vesicaria (Brassicaceae). This is a plant of the mustard family, also known as aruga, the leaves of which are still eaten as a salad. It also has oil-bearing seeds that can be used as a substitute for pepper.

A second mention of "herbs" in English translations is the Book of Exodus:

Ekoruhe 12:8 A me kai te kikokiko i taua pō anō, he mea tunu ki te ahi, he taro rewana-kore hoki; he pūwhā kawa hoki tā rātou e kīnaki ai ki taua mea.
Exodus 12:8 They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. (NRSV)

The Hebrew word translated by pūwhā kawa ("pūhā with an unpleasant, bitter or sour taste") in this text is memorim, which Michael Zohary interprets as a generic term covering a variety of bitter herbs, "especially those belonging to the mustard and daisy families" (Plants, p. 100), one of which growing in the desert is the pūhā-like poppy-leaved Reichardia, Reichardia tingitana (Asteracese), also known as the "false sowthistle". The Samoan translation is lā'au 'o'ona "bitter or sour plants", and the Hawaiian is mea mulemule, literally "sour or unpleasant things".

"Bitter herbs", Hebrew memorim, appear again in the Book of Numbers:

Tauanga 9:11 Me mahi e rātou i te rua o ngā marama, i te tekau mā whā o ngā rā, i te ahiahi, me kīnaki ki te taro rewana-kore, ki te pūwhā kawa.
Numbers 9:11 In the second month on the fourteenth day, at twilight, they shall they shall keep it; they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. (NRSV)

The Samoan translation is the same as for the previous example; in Hawaiian they are this time nā lau mulea; the root word for a bitter quality is in the passive form rather than reduplicated. Note also the use of taro in the Māori text in this and the previous examples, even in these contexts, to represent "bread" (see the page for taro for more information about this).

Finally, still in the Old Testament, is this proverb, which is a fitting complement for the Māori whakatauākī quoted earlier:

Whakatauki 15:17 He pai ake te tina pūwhā ko te aroha hei kīnaki, i te kau whāngai e kīnakitia ana ki te mauāhara.
Proverbs 15:17 Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it. (NRSV)

The Hebrew word here is 'eseb "any green plant, vegetable", and is translated as "vegetables" in some modern English translations, and left as "herbs" (as it appears in the King James Version) in others. In Samoan it has been rendered simply as lā'au "greens", and in Hawaiian as lau ngāhele, "wild greenery", as in the passage from the Book of Kings.

Hoki atu ki runga -- Back to the top of the page.


Sonchus grandifolius - Pūhā (Moriori)
(Otauwae Point, Chatham Islands. Photo: (c) Peter de Lange, NZPCN)
Sonchus kirkii flanking S. asper & S. oleraceus - Pūwhā
(Kai-iwi sea cliff, Whanganui. Photo: (c) Colin Ogle , NZPCN)
Reichardia tingitana - False Sow Thistle
Pūwhā in Te Paipera Tapu
(Cyprus. Photo: Krzysztof Ziarnek, Wikimedia)
Eruca vesicaria - Garden Rocket (Aruga)
Pūwhā in Te Paipera Tapu
(Among roadside weeds, Murcia, Spain. Photo: Retama, Wikimedia)
Further information : There are profiles of the Sonchus species, endemic and naturalized, on the NZPCA web site; Peter Crowe's Field Guide to native edible plants also has a section on the native and introduced pūhā (see Bibliography for publication details). The seaweed Colpomenia sinuosa is included in many web-based databases, some of which include a little information about its habits of growth. There is information on the two Biblical plants illustrated in Michael Zohary's Plants of the Bible, and an abundance of information about garden rocket (aruga) in gardening books and on the web.
Photographs: We are again grateful to members of the NZ Plant Conservation Network who have made their photographs available to us: for this page, John Braggins (the picture of Sonchus kirkii flowers in the text), Gillian Crowcroft, Peter de Lange and Colin Ogle, and also to the others acknowledged with their pictures for making their work available for use.

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