*Kauli [Proto-Nuclear Polynesian, probably from a combination of Proto-Polynesian *kau "tree" and *quli "black".]


Agathis australis (Araucariaceae)



From Proto Nuclear Polynesian *Kauli (Diaspyros samoensis, "Samoan ebony", Ebenaceae). [The word was probably first a general term, literally meaning "black tree"]

Tane Mahuta
Tāne Mahuta - NZ's oldest kauri, approx 1250 years old
(Waipoua Forest, Northland. Photo (c) John Sawyer, NZPCN)
Kauri TMR
Twelve year old kauri in the morning sun.-
(Te Māra Reo)

Tongan kōkau'auli (Elattostachys falcata, Sapindaceae), name used on Niua for the ngatata tree
Samoan: 'au'auli (Diospyros samoensis, Ebenaceae)
East Uvean: kaukauli (Diospyros samoensis, Ebenaceae)
Tahitian: 'āuri (Saplings of Inocarpus fagifer and other important trees)

Note: See the linked page (highlighted at the top of this page) for more information about the ancestral name, its modern descendents, and the plants it denotes.

The word "Kauri" is derived from a descriptive combination originally meaning "black tree". It originated around the time Polynesian voyagers set out from Samoa to explore the Eastern Pacific.

Back to:
Top of page
Next sections:
(New Zealad Kauri
The Kauri in Traditional Maori Poetry and Proverbs
The Kauri in Te Paipera Tapu
References etc.

(New Zealand) Kauri

CaptionThe kauri is an iconic tree, historically and culturally of great importance to New Zealanders. Although intimately associated with the far north of New Zealand, its natural range extended to the northern Waikato (as far as the southern edge of the Kawhia harbour) and the Coromandel peninsula. Much of the kauri forest was destroyed by milling in the 19th Century, but significant remnants remain in Northland and the Coromandel. There are smaller remnants in Auckland and the Waikato, including an important stand in the Hakarimata Ranges a few kilometres from our garden, where two giant trees which escaped the loggers' saws and axes have over the last century produced a regenerating forest.

The kauri itself is part of New Zealand's heritage from the continent of Gondwanaland; its ancient form was present in the area that eventually split off as Aotearoa over 200 million years ago. The other members of the genus Agathis originated from the New Zealand form, so the kauri is the most ancient member of the genus. It is the only member of the Araucariaceae in the modern New Zealand native flora. The kauri is a very long-lived tree, when it escapes the loggers' axes and adzes: the oldest surviving specimen is Tāne Mahuta, in the Waipoua forest (pictured above), and many surving trees in that forest, the Waitakere and Hunua Ranges in Auckland, and the Coromandel are several centuries old. Recently the kauri has been seriously threatened by a water mould which infects the roots of trees and will eventually kill them. It is spread through infected soil, which may be carried on footware by trampers and tourists. The Ministry of Primary Industries has set up a website with information about the kauri die-back disease, what is being done to stem its advance, and what you can do to help.

Along with our forty-plus New Zealand kauri, we have a specimen of the Queensland Kauri, Agathis robusta, in the garden, and also two other members of the wider Araucarian family among our exotic plants: the bunyabunya, Araucaria bidwillii, and the Norfolk Island Pine, A. heterophylla. In Maori tradition, the appearance of the kauri's bark links it with the tohorā (or tohoraha), the southern right whale (Balaena australis). The kauri and the whale were friends, but the whale preferred the sea while the kauri wanted to stay on land, so they exchanged skins, which is why the kauri has such a thin, grey skin and so much resin, just as the whale has abundant oil.

There was extensive background information in the article on kauri in Te Ara - The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, along with a brief mention of the link between the kauri and the right whale. Unfortunately, the links to this information have been changed, and the current site was inaccessible when we checked while updating these pages. When we can find URLs that work, we will restore the links to those pages. Excellent sites for information on the botany of the plant (and more photographs) are the University of Hamburg's botanical pages , The University of Auckland Botany Department's website, and the Australian Gymnosperm Database . Just click on any of the links to go to the page of your choice - it will open in a separate tab or window.

CaptionThere are over 40 kauri growing in the garden, most planted in 1997, soon after we moved to Ngaruawahia. You can see at least one (if only the top of it) from anywhere on the upper levels, as it is tall tree which grows relatively rapidly when young, filling out to a massive forest giant after several hundred years. The photograph on the left shows Nena Benton about to plant one of the first as a spindly seedling in 1997. The same tree, 11 years later, can be seen against the skyline in the photograph in the introductory section, above.

The photograph on the top left of this page was taken in 2009 from a spot from where, without moving anything but your head, you can see 9 kauri trees, four quite close by and and another 5 in the middle or far distance (if you look carefully, there are 5 of these, a couple a long way off, in the photograph). Until January 2008 there were 51 of these trees, but about half a dozen were so stressed by the drought that year that they did not recover. Most of the ones that died were on the lower level, ironically quite close to the river, but in an open location with very little topsoil and thus nothing to hold the moisture for these surface-rooted trees in what was by far the driest January since records were first kept over a hundred years ago. We have had several more droughts since then, but there is now more cover and the remaining trees have survived relatively unscathed.

Back to:
Top of page
(New Zealand) Kauri
Next sections:
The Kauri in Traditional Maori Poetry and Proverbs
The Kauri in Te Paipera Tapu
References etc.

The Kauri in Traditional Maori Poetry and Proverbs

There are six references to the kauri, all in laments, covering the range of symbolic meanings of this word, in the collection of Maori traditional songs and chants compiled by Sir Apirana Ngata in the early decades of the twentieth century. Several proverbs in the extensive collection compiled by H.M. Mead and Neil Grove also refer to the kauri and its gum. (The full bibliographic references to the volumes from which these examples are drawn can be found under "Specific References" on the Acknowledgements page.)

First as a symbol of nobility, the kauri is identified with chieftainship, as in this lament for Peehi Tu-korehu of Ngati Maniapoto:

Hoki mai, e tama, i te ara rä uta;
Ka whara tō kiri i te paratai,
Anā ngā kauri kei Waharakeke.
[Then return, O Son, by the inland trail;
Your body scarred by the finny denizens of the sea
O'er yonder stand the kauri trees of Waiharakeke.
NM 277, V.3, pp. 216-7]

Te Taite Te Tomo says in his note on the last line quoted: "Waiharakeke. A river on the south-eastern shores of the Kawhia Harbour. Five kauri trees grew there which were the most southerly in the country. Here, figurative of the chiefs of the locality."

Often the deceased chief is referred to as a kauri log, as in these examples from laments composed by Tuwharetoa and Waikato poets respectively:

'A whakarewaia
The kauri i te wai, ē, ī
[Launch and set afloat
The kauri on the waters
. NM 194, V.2, pp. 424-5.]

Haere rä e Pä.
I nga tai whakarewa kauri ki te uru.
[Farewell, O Sir.
Depart on the kauri-bearing tides of the Western Sea.
NM 63, V.1, pp. 284-5.]

In the first of these two examples, the kauri is a metaphor for both the deceased chief, and the canoe which will take him back to his ancestors. In the second, the kauri represent fallen chiefs, and the western sea denotes the territory of Te Ati Awa of Taranaki who had killed Papaka te Naeroa, the subject of the lament, and his associates. (Cf. H. M. Mead and N. Groves, 2045, p. 330).

The resin produced by the kauri was tapped and burned to produce the black pigment used to highlight the incisions made in tatooing (moko). A metaphor for an excellent facial moko was "Ka kata te kauri [The kauri is laughing]" (M. Riley 1994, p. 193). Annointing with kauri pigment was a symbol of love and honour for a deceased chief, as in this lament for Te Heuheu Tukino:

Hoki mai, e Pā, tō moenga i te whare
'A tangi tīari kei ō tuāhine
Māna e ringiringi te renga waikauri.
[Return, O Sire, to your couch within the house
Where your sisters are weeping in sorrow,
And pour forth the kauri essence of the annointing.
NM 233, V.3, pp. 216-7.]

On the other hand, several proverbs used as reprimands to a stingy person refer to this preparation, or the resin itself which was used as a kind of chewing gum:

Puritia tō ngārahu kauri!
[Keep your kauri resin soot! Mead & Groves 2154, p. 347]


Puritia tō kauri hei ō matenga mō!
[Keep your kauri resin for your death journey! Mead & Groves 2153, p. 347]

Because of its huge size and indefinite lifespan, kauri could also symbolize isolation, as in this proverb:

He aha i kīa ai ko koe hai tōtara haere wā, ko au hai kauri tū i te wao?
[Why is it said that you are a tōtara to go places, while I am a kauri that stands in the forest? Mead & Groves, 341, pp. 63-64]

The tōtara (Podocarpus totara), more abundant, durable, excellent for carving and relatively easier to fell, was widely used for making canoes, hence its symbolizing mobility as against the immovable and therefore static kauri.

Although not confined to the Far North, this was the area in which kauri luxuriated, and thus the tree could also represent Ngapuhi and other northern tribes. An example of this is in a tangi (lament) composed by "an old woman" from Tuhourangi, one of the tribes in the Arawa confederation, who were overwhelmed by Ngapuhi invaders on Mokoia Island in Lake Rotorua:

Tērā e titiro ka ngaro Rotorua i te kauri.
[Look and see Rotorua is quite hidden by the kauri. NM 31, V.1, pp. 134-5]

Back to:
Top of page
(New Zealand) Kauri
The Kauri in Traditional Maori Poetry and Proverbs
Next sections:
The Kauri in Te Paipera Tapu
References etc.

The Kauri in Te Paipera Tapu

The kauri also features prominently in the Māori translation of the Bible, completed in the 1860s and revised several times since. The tree makes its appearance 20 times, spread over ten books in the Old Testament, generally where the English translations mostly use "fir" (King James Version) or "cedar" (Revised Standard Version, and others); however in some verses its English translation may be "pine" in either version, or "fir" in the RSV or both. In each of these cases it is a translation of the same Hebrew word, berosh. The reason for the inconsistency is that berosh is a "taxon", that is, a word that groups together several entities sharing some common characteristics -- in this case, three species of stately evergreen conifers growing in Israel and Lebanon. These are the evergreen cypress, Cupressus sempervirens,, native to both regions, and the eastern savin (Juniperus excelsa), native to Lebanon, both members of the Cypress family (Cupressaceae), along with the Cicilican fir (Abies cilicica), a species of pine (Pinaceae), which grows in Northern Lebanon but is not found naturally in Israel. All are tall, slim, impressive trees, reminiscent of the kauri, both in form (from a distance -- the leaf structures are very different) and in longevity -- the Cypress for example is known to live for several millennia.

The English names are Northern European similes for the Middle-Eastern species, just as the kauri is a distantly related tree recognizable in Aotearoa which shares many qualities with its Mediterranean counterparts. Interestingly, the translators of the Bible into Samoan took a different approach in their handling of berosh, using a single word, as with their colleagues in Aotearoa, but simply adapting the Hebrew word to Samoan phonology, as perosi, rather than translating it to a local equivalent.

Professor Michael Zohary, in his authoritative work Plants of the Bible (London: Cambridge University Press, 1982) notes that when the word berosh is used in Biblical references to Lebanon, it will generally indicate either the fir or the savin, as in these examples:

Na ka tono tangata atu a Hirama ki a Horomona , hei mea, kua rongo atu ahau i te kupu i tukua mai nei e koe ki ahau: ka mahia katoatia e ahau tau e hiahia ana, ara nga rakau, te hita me te kauri.
... Na ka homai e Hirama he hita, he kauri, ki a Horomona, ana rakau i hiahia ai. (PT)
[And Hiram sent to Solomon, saying, I have considered the things which thou sentest to me for: and I will do all thy desire concerning timber of cedar, and concerning timber of fir.
... So Hiram gave Solomon cedar trees and
fir trees according to all his desire.
And Hiram sent to Solomon, saying, "I have heard the message which you have sent to me; I am ready to do all you desire in the matter of cedar and cypress timber.
... So Hiram supplied Solomon with all the timber of cedar and
cypress that he desired. (RSV)]
1 Nga Kingi / 1 Kings 5:8,10.
Hita, the Maori adaptation of the English word "cedar" does refer to the famous cedars of Lebanon, Cedrus libani (Pinaceae). Since Solomon would have had little reason to order cypresses from Hiram -- he had plenty much closer to home -- the "cypress" in the English translation is probably the Cilician fir, Abies cilicia.

... E Taira, kua mea na koe, Ko ahau te mea ataahua rawa.
Kei waenga moana ou rohe, oti rawa koe e whakaataahua e ou kaihanga.
No nga kauri o Heniri nga papa katoa i hanga ai ou kaipuke; i tikina ano he hita i Repanona hei hanga rewa mau. (PT)
[O Tyrus, thou hast said, I am of perfect beauty.
Thy borders are in the midst of the seas, thy builders have perfected thy beauty.
They have made all thy ship boards of
fir trees of Senir: they have taken cedars from Lebanon to make masts for thee.
... "O Tyre, you have said, 'I am perfect in beauty.'
Your borders are in the heart of the seas; your builders made perfect your beauty.
They made all your planks of
fir trees from Senir; they took a cedar from Lebanon to make a mast for you. (RSV)]
Ehikiera / Ezekiel 27:3-5.
"Kauri" and "Fir" refer to the savin, Juniperus excelsa, which still grows in abundance on Mount Senir (Hermon).

Where the trees are located in Israel, however, the cypress will be the tree referred to, and this is also likely to be the case where there is no specific regional location. For example:

Tera a Eparaima e ki, Hei aha ake maku nga whakapakoko? kua rongo ahau ki a ia; ko toku rite kei te kauri matomato. Ka kitea e ahau he hua mou. (PT)
[Ephraim shall say, What have I to do any more with idols? I have heard him, and observed him: I am like a green fir tree. From me is thy fruit found. (KJV)
O E'phraim, what have I to do with idols? It is I who answer and look after you. I am like an evergreen cypress, from me comes your fruit. (RSV)]
Hohea / Hosea 14:8.

Whakatuwheratia ou kuwaha, e Repanona, kia kai ai te ahi i ou hita.
Aue, e te kauri, kua hinga hoki te hita, kua pahuatia nga mea ataahua .... (PT)
[Open thy doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour thy cedars.
fir tree; for the cedar is fallen; because the mighty are spoiled .... (KJV)
Open your doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour your cedars!
Wail, O
cypress, for the cedar has fallen, for the glorious trees are ruined! (RSV)]
Hakaraia / Zecharaiah 11:1-2.

Back to:
Top of page
(New Zealand) Kauri
The Kauri in Traditional Maori Poetry and Proverbs
The Kauri in Te Paipera Tapu
Next section:
References etc.


References and further reading: See links in the introductory section to this page; also for information on the associations of the kauri with Gondwana, see the book by George Gibbs, and for the medicinal uses of the Kauri, Murdoch Riley's Herbal, both referenced in the bibliography. Information about the Biblical plants mentioned can be found in the book by Michael Zohary (details above), pp. 106-7; there are also good Wikipedia articles on Cupressus sempervirens, Juniperus excelsa and Abies cicilica. Biblical Quotations are from Te Paipera Tapu (PT), London: British and Foreign Bible Society, 1958; The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version ... (RSV), New York: Oxford University Press, 1962; and The Holy Bible: Authorized King James Version (KJV), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Photographs: The picture of Tāne Mahuta was taken by the late John Sawyer, a keystone member of the NZ Plant Conservation Network, who before his untimely death very kindly gave us permission to use his photographs on these pages. The other photographs were taken in Te Māra Reo

10 year old kauri starting to produce cones.
(Te Māra Reo)
Another kauri ten years after planting.
(Te Māra Reo)

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