Piwakawaka Mini Te Mära Reo ~ The Language Garden
*Pala [Proto-Polynesian, from Proto Oceanic *bala, Cyathea & Cycas species]



Ptisana salicina [formerly Marattia salicina] (Marattiaceae); also the tubers of several species of orchid and of tī para (Cordyline fruticosa).



This name has has a very interesting evolution on its way to Aotearoa and after its arrival here. It seems to have started out in Oceania as a generic term for a group of frond-bearing trees, especially cycads and tree ferns. In Polynesia, as noted in page pn the Proto Polynesian source word, *pala (link at the top of this page), it came to mean primarily very large ferns, and in Eastern Polynesia, especially ferns of the Marattia family, which have edible roots. In some of these languages, like Maori and Hawaiian, the reflexes of *pala also denote edible roots of secondary importance, or varieties of the more important ones (in Hawaii, for example, pala denotes the native fern Marattia douglasii, and varieties of taro and kumara). It is very tempting to link this extension of the meaning of *pala to the Proto Malayo Polynesian word for a seed coconut, *paraq, which would give the word as applied to roots quite a different history from the fern name. However, there is no supporting evidence outside Eastern Polynesia for this meaning having left Remote Oceania, so it looks as if this possible convergence of two historically separate words is simply the result of an extension of the meaning of the fern name, because of the properties of the fern root.

In Aotearoa both meanings -- the fern and its tuberous roots -- are retained, and by analogy the range of meanings was extended also to include the edible roots of the orchids Gastrodia cunninghamii and Orthoceras novaeseelandiae, along with good quality aruhe (the roots of the bracken fern Pteridium esculentum) and the roots of a species of Cordyline (Tī para), probably C. fruticosa. The fern is the largest fern in the New Zealand flora, apart from the tree ferns, and was once quite abundant in damp forests in northern New Zealand, but is now relatively rare thanks to the depredations of feral pigs.Those that survive the pigs are likely to have their fronds devoured by cattle if growing in unfenced bush. It is very slow-growing but quite spectacular even when young. The fronds of mature ferns can be three or four metres long, and two metres in breadth at their widest point. Its Hawaiian counterpart, Marattia douglasii, is also slow-growing, just a little smaller than the New Zealand para (fronds up to 3 metres long), and also greatly threatened in the wild by pigs. Both these ferns are small, however, compared with some other members of the Marattia family, like Angiopteris evecta, known in Niue by the related name palatao.

Of the various roots called "para", apart from those of the fern itself, the most important in terms of regular consumption were those of the rauaruhe (Pteridium esculentum, bracken fern) and the tï (Cordyline fruticosa). Both were prepared by soaking, steaming, roasting and pounding, which, in the case of the fern root, removed the carcinogens which are present in both the roots and fronds of the rauaruhe.

Of the orchids, the Gastrodia was the most important. It seems at certain times of the year to have been a regular part of the diet of the Tuhoe people in the Urewera. It was normally harvested in the winter. The Tuhoe had two names for the orchid, Perei or Hüperei, the "real name", and Mäukuuku, and would only use the latter name when looking for it, as if it heard its real name uttered it would be warned and disappear. According to Andrew Crowe (Field Guide, p. 97), the Tahitians observed a similar protocol when searching for arrowroot. The tubers can grow to about 5 cm thick and 25 cm. long, with several to a plant. The flowering stem grows to about a metre high. These are very unusual plants in that their nourishment is obtained from a symbiotic relationship with a fungus that lives on certain kinds of tree roots; they have no roots of their own and are therefore impossible to grow or cultivate outside a part of the forest with the right biosystem. Undoubtedly because of this, it was regarded by those for whom it was a significant part of their diet as being a plant different from any other -- it did not "grow" in the forest, but was rather put there as a gift from the gods.

The roots of the Orthoceras orchids are described by Andrew Crowe (p. 81) as having "a crisp tender texture and a sweet, watery taste" when eaten raw. There appear to be two species in New Zealand, both with edible tubers and plants of open scrubland and clay banks: O. novaeseelandiae, found in the North Island and northern South Island, and O. strictum, confined to the Auckland region, but also found in Australia. The flowering stems are about 70cm high and the tubers are quite small, about 5cm by 1 cm. The plants of both species of Orthoceras are known by another hertiage name: Māikaika, probably derived from a Proto Eastern Polynesian word *Maika the term for the Polynesian-introduced cooking bananas.


ParaPinna on frond of young Para (Ptisana salicina),
Te Māra Reo

PPN: *Pala Ptsana salicina (Marattiaceae)
Mäori Reflex: Para Ptsana salicina (Marattiaceae); & tubers of Gastrodia cunninghamii & Orthoceras spp. (Orchidaceae), Cordyline fruticosa (Agavaceae), & Pteridium esculentum (Pteridaceae).

Niuean: Para (Generic term for several species of large ferns)
Rapanui: Para (Campylopus turficola [Dicranaceae])
Tahitian: Para (? Ptisana / Marattia salicina [Marattiaceae] "A root eaten in times of scarcity")
Marquesan: Pa'a (? Ptisana / Marattia salicina. "A kind of fern eaten in times of scarcity")
Hawaiian: Pala (Marattia douglasii [Marattiaceae]; also varieties of Colocasia antiquora & Ipomoea batatas)
Rarotongan: Para (Ptisana [Marattia] salicina)

Note: Williams notes that in Māori three terms were used in conjunction with tubers calssified as para: para kehe (large tubers), para pōnaho (small tubers) and para tarare (those with mottled skin).

ParaTubers and emerging flower stems of Gastrodia cunninghamii

ParaFlower of Gastrodia cunninghamii

ParaPortion of frond of Para, Ptisana salicifolia (Auckland)

Early engravings of Orthoceras, showing flowers and tubers.

GastrodiaGastrodia cunninghamii flowering stem.

OrthocerasOrthoceras novaeseelandiae in flower.

Flower of Orthoceras strictum.

Orthoceras novaeseelandiae flower.

Further Information: The Electric Orchid Blog has an entertaining but reasonably accurate article about Gastrodia’s symbiotic relationship with the fungus which is its source of nourishment, and the need to avoid uttering its "real" name, perei, in the forest, lest it hear you and hide. The picture of the Gastrodia tubers also came from this site. The controversy about the status of Orthoceras strictum in the New Zealand flora, and a resolution to this, can be found in two articles by Dr Ian St George: “Is Orthoceras strictum in NZ? Is O. novae-zeelandiae endemic?” NZ Native Orchid Group Journal No. 92, Sept. 2004, and "The New Zealand Orchids: The Editor's Annual List", NZNOG Journal No 110, November 2008. The Cook Islands Biodiversity Website has good notes on Ptisana (Marattia) salicina: http://cookislands.bishopmuseum.org/species.asp?id=6373. Andrew Crowe's Field Guide to Native Edible Plants of New Zealand (see general bibliography) has good reviews of the edible tubers.

Photographs: The large photograph of the Para frond was taken by "Kahuroa" in Auckland: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:KingFernFrond.jpg. The Gastrodia tubers are pictured in the Electric Blogspot article and the engravings are reproduced from the article "Is Orthoceras strictum in NZ?" (references above). The other orchid pictures are by Michael Pratt and Ian St George on the New Zealand Native Orchid Group's web site, which has pop-up photographs and information on all New Zealands native orchids.

Hue flower

Te Māra Reo, c/o Benton Family Trust, "Tumanako", RD 1, Taupiri, Waikato 3791, Aotearoa / New Zealand
Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License.

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