Piwakawaka Mini Te Mära Reo ~ The Language Garden
*Milo [Proto-Polynesian, from Eastern Proto-Oceanic]

Miro

 
 

Prumnopitys ferruginea [formerly Podocarpus ferrugineus]

Other inherited names: Toromiro (see separate page)

Tui

The word “miro” is of Eastern Oceanic origin, that is, it was first used, as far as we can tell, in the form *milo, by those Austronesian explorers who had left the New Guinea area to explore the islands that lay beyond: the Southeast Solomons, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Micronesia, Fiji and Polynesia. It referred primarily to a particular tropical tree, Thespesia populnea, and replaced an earlier word for this plant, *banaRo, still used (in its varied inherited forms) in many of the other parts of the Austronesian world, including the Philippines. There are special qualities to this tree, however, which undoubtedly were remembered by the early Polynesian explorers, and which account for its name being used for a superficially very different tree in Aotearoa. These are discussed in the entry for the Proto-Polynesian name.

(New Zealand) Miro

Miro is sometimes called "brown pine", from the colour of the wood, or "plum pine", from the appearance of the ripening "fruit". Like the other podocarps, it is a conifer, but these trees belong to quite a different family from the pines. New Zealand's podocarps are among the oldest trees in the world, the relics of ancient Gondwanaland, which as a group can be traced back almost 200 million years. All species found here are unique to New Zealand. Some of them, such as kahikatea and rimu, can be traced directly back to the time when New Zealand first started separating from the continent, more than 70 million years ago. Kahikatea can be traced back in New Zealand at least 110 million years; along with totara, miro evolved much more recently -- it's fossil pollen goes back only about 10 to 15 million years from the present. Although it is a characteristic tree in the podocarp-kauri forests of northern New Zealand (Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Coromandel, Auckland and Northland), miro is found naturally scattered through lowland forests throughout New Zealand, including Stewart Island.

It is a tall, emergent forest tree (that is, it pops its head out through the forest canopy formed by the broadleaved species among which it grows). A mature tree will stand as much as 25-35 metres high. When it matures it has a clear trunk with a rounded head, but in young trees, the graceful juvenile foliage clothes the whole tree until it is 7 or 8 metres high. The leaflets are arranged in flattened, opposite pairs on the branchlets, with longer, lighter-green leaflets up to 3 cm. long and tapering more sharply towards the end of the branchlet than the shorter (15 to 20 mm) slightly wider (2-3mm) leaflets on the mature trees. 

 

Miro branchlets

Miro branchlets

PPN: *Milo Thespesia populnea (a tree)

Tongan: Milo (T. populnea)
Niuean: Milo (T. populnea)
Samoan: Milo (Thespesia sp.)
Rapanui: Miro (Timber or ornamental trees)
Tahitian: Miro (T. populnea)
Marquesan: Mi'o (T. populnea)
Hawaiian: Milo (T. populnea etc.)
Tuamotuan: Miro (T. populnea)
Rarotongan: Miro (T. populnea)

Note: Much of the information about the Miro on this page has been published in an article, "Miro in the Language Garden", which I wrote for the Waikato Tree Crops Association's Newsletter, March 2008 issue.

 

The pollen (male) cones occur singly, distributed rather sparingly and irregularly along the branchlets, and stand upright on the branchlets when mature. The ovules (female flower buds) also occur singly, enclosed in several scales at the end of a small stalk in the spaces between the branchlets, but are more generously and regularly arranged.  The fruits, which technically are seeds enclosed in a fleshy outer layer, are bright red, with purplish bloom when ripe.  On a fruiting tree, this looks a bit like bunches of fruit, but there is only one to each small stalk. They do look very much like small plums, each one about an inch in diameter. They are the favourite food of the kererü (the native wood pigeon), and in the days when birds were an essential part of their diet, the Mäori devised ingenious methods for snaring pigeons, taking advantage of the fact that the fruit made the birds thirsty, so they could be snared at carefully placed water troughs. Trees renowned for their abundance of fruit would be given proper names, and only certain individuals would have the right to snare the birds that visited them. These trees live for hundreds of years, like so many of our native timbers, so a productive miro tree would have been an extremely valuable asset to its guardian.

The special gourmet quality of meat from kererü fed with miro is indicated by its being referred to in traditional Mäori poetry:

Kia werohia koe ki te manu kai miro
I runga o Titi'.
[For you they will spear the miro-eating bird
From the heights of Titi'.
- He Tangi mö Te Hiakai", Ngä Möteatea Part 1, p.232-3]

Indeed, the modern gourmet can still taste the delights of miro-flavoured poultry without contravening the law relating to protected birds like the kererü. According to my friend the distinguished Ngati Maniapoto kaumatua Dr Tui Adams, chicken stuffed with ripe miro berries is a delight to eat, whether prepared in the oven or the hängi. Some Mäori restauranteers are also using miro berries and other traditional food sources in new upmarket dishes.

The trees flower generally in October and November; male and female flowers are borne on separate trees.  The fruit will develop and slowly ripen through the winter, becoming fully ripe between November and April, but they are not yet fully mature.  Even if they have been processed by a kererü, they will still take anything from 18 months to four years after planting to germinate.  If you are patient, they will germinate best a summer or two after you planted them if they are lightly pressed into moist (but not wet) potting mix covered with a layer of leaf-litter. The seedlings transplant easily, but naturally prefer a shady spot. Although they do seed abundantly, miro do not appear to like each other’s company; even though the kererü does not facilitate the quicker germination of the seeds, they have been important to the tree’s survival by distributing the seeds through the forest. A favourite spot for miro seems to be along the top of a ridgeline. Since they poke their heads above the canopy, pollination from trees some distance away is not a problem. Very few groves of miro have been discovered; I would suspect that at least some of those that have been noted are the result of human intervention.

The bark is very dark, and looks a bit like a hammer-beaten metal.  If the bark is injured, resin will ooze out it -- this is one way to distinguish the miro from its close relative the matai (P. spicata), which does not bleed in this way.

The sapwood is light golden brown, and the heart wood darker, extremely strong, heavy, and often beautifully figured.  However, although the timber is excellent for flooring, furniture, and other indoor uses, it is not durable if exposed the moisture, so, probably fortunately, would be no use for fence posts or house piles.

Miro oil, pressed from the seeds and infused with fragrant herbs (such as the käretu grass), was traditionally used by Mäori for cosmetic purposes. The oil and the gum both have antiseptic properties and the gum (obtained by incising the tree or crushing bark) was used by Mäori and bushmen alike for treating wounds.

While miro was a commercially important tree in the days when native forests were fair game, the comparatively slow growth rate of this and other native trees has discouraged many would-be users from considering planting such trees for sustainable harvesting. However the hundred-year cycle which wood-users in many other parts of the world accept as normal is also slowly becoming seriously considered in New Zealand. A few years ago, for example, a furniture designer and manufacturer who used a number of native timbers, including miro, announced a replanting programme with this in mind.

Location in the Language Garden

The oldest Miro, planted about 1979, is located in area SE-29. It is a little over 3 metres high and still mainly in its juvenile phase (the photograph is of one of its lower branchlets; there are other photographs in the page about the area in which it is growing). We have two miro seedlings, given by Dr Ngapare Hopa and Mr Ted Douglas, respectively, in memory of Nena. Because of the drought (2007/8) they are still in their pots awaiting a permanent location.

Miro branchlets
Young Miro foliage [Te Mära Reo]

 

References and further reading

“A cut above”. National Business Review, 20 August 2004, p. 33.
J. T. Salmon, The Native Trees of New Zealand (Auckland: Reed, 1996).
R.M. Laing & E.W. Blackwell, Plants of New Zealand (Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs).
Elsdon Best, Forest Lore of the Mäori (Wellington: Government Printer, 1977)
L.J. Metcalf, The Cultivation of New Zealand Trees and Shrubs (Wellington: Reed, 1972).
Murdoch Riley, Mäori Healing and Herbal (Paraparaumu: Viking Seven Seas, 1994).
George Gibbs, Ghosts of Gondwana (Nelson: Craig Potton, 2006).
M.N. Clout & J.A.V. Tilley, “Germination of Miro (Prumnopitys ferruginea) seeds after consumption by New Zealand pigeons (Hemiphaga nocaeseelandiae)”, in NZ Journal of Botany, Vol. 30, 1992, pp. 25-28.

 

There is a very good photograph of the fruit (seed) of the miro on the University of Auckland's website. Our trees are not yet old enough to fruit.

Hue flower

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