Piwakawaka Mini Te Mära Reo ~ The Language Garden
*Mamaku [Proto Central Eastern Polynesian]



Cyathea medularis (Cyatheaceae)

Alternative local names: körau, katätä, pïtau.

There are two sets of tree ferns in the New Zealand flora, the members of the Cyathea family like the mamaku and the ponga, and the members of the Dicksonia family, like the wheki and wheki-ponga. The Cyatheae generally have larger and more graceful fronds, but the families are also easily distinguished by looking at the stipes (the central supports for the fronds); those of the Cyathea species have scales (if you look carefully at the picture of the mamaku koru (crook) opposite, and the photo of the unfolding wheki [Dicksonia squarrosa] frond on the page for that fern, you can see the scales and hairs respectively distributed along the stipes).

The (New Zealand) mamaku, Cyathea medullaris, is native to Aotearoa, Fiji, and parts of Polynesia, although because it is a strikingly handsome tree fern it is now widely grown around the world. It is likely that the Rarotongan cognate for this name has been acquired from Mäori rather than directly inherited from the original name, although the latter probably originated in Tahiti (where the mamaku does grow natively) or the Marquesas. There is no doubt, however, about the antiquity of the Hawai'ian name!

In Mäori tradition this is one of the three children of Te Häpuku who fled into the forest to escape the wrath of Täwhaki, and took the form of tree ferns. Murdoch Riley in his Herbal gives an interesting addendum to this event. Apparently the mamaku later offended the malignant forest elves, who in revenge made the mamaku's once rigid upward-pointing fronds droop downwards, as they do to this day.

The tree itself is tall and imposing, reaching a height of up to 20 metres in favourable conditions, and often towering above the surrounding vegetation. It is found throughout New Zealand, including the Chatham and Three Kings Islands and Stewart Island, but is more common in warmer areas with plenty of moisture. It is easily distinguished from the other NZ species of Cyathea by the absence of old fronds clinging to the trunk, and the hexagonal scars left on the trunk by the old fronds as they fall away.

There is a wealth of information about traditional uses of the mamaku and lore connected with it in Murdoch Riley's Herbal. The mucilage from the sap, and also the pith from the upper part of the trunk and squeezed from the young leaves were widely used as poultices for a variety of skin conditions, and also to give relief to fatigued limbs. I can personally testify to the almost magical efficacy of the sap from the stipes of new fronds as a remedy for sunburn. It also apparently works as a treatment for boils, and also as a coagulant to help stem bleeding from the skin.

The gum oozing from a bruised trunk when solidified was apparently chewed as a remedy for diarrhoea, and prepared in a different way could also be a laxitive.

Baked in a hangi, the pith from the upper part of the mamaku trunk and also from the stipes of young fronds was eaten both as a famine food and as a special relish at feasts. It was also thought to be highly beneficial to the child in the womb when eaten by pregnant women, and to assist women to recover after a difficult childbirth. (Restraint had to be used where the pith from the trunk was involved, as the whole tree has to be destroyed to obtain it. Andrew Crowe says that the flavour was improved by bleeding the trunk by bruising it, to remove the bitter flavour caused by the sap.)

Various observers have commented on the taste of baked mamaku, mostly favourably and likening it to turnip or marrow. Interestingly, one of the alternative names for this fern, körau, has long been applied to a variety of turnip (introduced to Aotearoa by Captain Cook). One early account likened the taste favourably to that of sago, which is prepared from the pith of a species of palm. Andrew Crowe found the dried pith of the stipes (which can be gathered without demolishing the tree) very pleasant to eat when baked or as an ingredient in soup.

Koru of Mamaku

Mamaku Waitakere

PCEPn: *Mamaku, Tree ferns, esp. Cyathea sp. (Cyatheaceae)

Cognate words in modern Polynesian languages:

Tahitian: mama'u (Cyathea medullaria & C. cooperi -- Cyatheaceae)
Hawaiian: ma'u, ma'uma'u, 'ama'u, äma'uma'u (Sadleria cyatheoides, S. pallida, S. wagneriana & S. souleyetiana -- Blechnaceae)
Rarotongan: mamaku (Cyathea spp.)

Note: The Rarotongan cognate may be a comparatively recent appropriation from Tahitian or NZ Mäori.

The significance of mamaku as a famine food is mentioned in poetry in Horomona Hapai of Ngati Porou's lament for the failure of crops (NM Vol. 2, pp. 308-9), where he urges people to "go inland to the food of Toi", the mamaku and the aruhe. This, and the mythical association of the mamaku with Tangaroa, atua of the sea, is perhaps why the mamaku is also mentioned in the karakia quoted in the page devoted to the ponga (Cyathea dealbata). Another reference in poetry is to the drooping fronds, perhaps but not necessarily a reference to the aftermath of their flight from Täwhaki, but certainly a metaphor for the sadness of the author, Te Ikakerengutu of Ngati Ruanui, after the death of his sons:

Etia nei au, e tama mä,
Ko te Atanga-a-Täne
E tuoho i uta rä,
E piko nei me te mamaku
Ki äku tamariki.
[I am like, o sons,
The progeny of Täne
That bend over the shore,
And droop there like the mamaku
Because of my children.]

[NM, Vol 2, pp. 366-7]

The "progeny of Täne" are the trees of the forest and and also many of those of the seashore, like the pohutukawa; the mamaku is one of the progeny of Tangaroa, through Te Häpuku.


References and further reading

There are very good accounts of the medicinal properties of the mamaku and also of some of the traditions surrounding it in Murdoch Riley's Herbal (pp. 268-271), and of its use as food in Andrew Crowe's Field Guide (see bibliography for details). Botanical and ecological information, along with photographs, can be found on the NZ Plant Conservation Network's web pages, and there are more photographs and botanical details on the Auckland University School of Biological Sciences web site.

Photographs. The koru (crook) is from a ten year old mamaku in Te Mära Reo. The picture of the mature tree in the Waitakere ranges was taken by "Kahuroa" and deposited, along with some other photographs of the mamaku, in the Wikipedia Creative Commons database.

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Te Mära Reo, c/o Benton Family Trust, "Tumanako", RD 1, Taupiri, Waikato 3791, Aotearoa / New Zealand
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