*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"]

There are five kauri in this photograph.

Kauri with cones
Young kauri with cones.

Tongan, Niuean, Samoan: 'au'auli (Diospyros samoensis, Ebenaceae)
Tahitian: auri (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.

(New Zealand) Kauri
e.g. Location in the Language Garden
The Kauri in Traditional Maori Poetry and Proverbs

(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. 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 is 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. 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.

Back to: (New Zealand) Kauri
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e.g. Location in the Language Garden
The Kauri in Traditional Maori Poetry and Proverbs

Location in the Language Garden

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.

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The Kauri in Traditional Maori Poetry and Proverbs

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 tötara 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]

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(New Zealand) Kauri
Location in the Language Garden
The Kauri in Traditional Maori Poetry and Proverbs

References and further reading: (See links in the introductory section to this page; also for information on the associations of the kauri with Gondwana, the book by George Gibbs, and for the medicinal uses of the Kauri, Murdoch Riley's Herbal, both referenced in the bibliography.)


Photographs: R.B. All photographs were taken in Te Māra Reo.

10 year old kauri starting to produce cones.

Another kauri ten years after planting.

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