*Poa [Proto Polynesian]

Poa, Poapoa

Poa, "Food"; Popoa, "Sacred food"; Poapoa, Parsonia heterophylla, "NZ Jasmine" (Apocynaceae).


Parsonsia heterophylla is also known as Tautauā, Kaihua and Akakaikiore.

From Proto Polynesian *Poa, Dioscorea sp. "Variety of yam with discernable odour" (Dioscoreaceae)

Parsonsia heterophylla, Poapoa, showing juvenile leaves.
Rimutaka Forest Park. Photo: (c) Jeremy Rolfe, NZPCN

Flowering poapoa, with adult leaves.
Photo: (c) Mike Thorsen, NZPCN.

Tongan: Poa (Dioscorea sp., "Kind of yam with a fishy smell", Dioscoreaceae)
Samoan: Poa (A cultivar of Dioscorea alata, "Kind of yam with fragrant odour", Dioscoreaceae)
Rennellese: Poa (Dioscorea sp., "Kind of wild yam", Dioscoreaceae)


The true yams, members of the family Dioscoriaceae, are significant food crops throughout the tropical Pacific, staples in some places and with more specialized or occasional use in others. There is general information about these plants on the page for *qufi, the reconstructed Proto-Polynesian word for Dioscorea alata, the generally most esteemed species. Qufi has reflexes retaining the meaning of the original in most Polynesian languages, including Māori.

Poa is the term applied to a special variety of yam in Tonga and Samoa -- in Samoa it has been described as a premium variety. It is possible that this word has come to Aotearoa in three forms, as a general word for food (poa), a term for sacred food reserved for ariki, priests, or people in a state of tapu (popoa), and, reflecting the vinous and fragrant qualities of the Samoan poa, the reduplicated form poapoa, applied to the white-flowered New Zealand Jasmine (Poapoa tautauā, Parsonia heterophylla).

The Latin specific name of the poapoa, heterophylla, refers to the variable leaves of the plant; as you can see in the photographs, the long, juvenile leaves are very different from those of the mature, flowering plants. Laing and Blackwell in their Plants of New Zealand remark in relation to this and other species of Parsonsia that "the beautiful fragrant panicles of white or red, jessamine-like flowers are much sought after by visitors to the bush" (p. 360).


References and further reading: See linked pages and general works on NZ plants in the bibliography. There is also basic botanical information along with more photographs on the NZ Plant Conservation Network site.

Photographs: We are grateful to Mike Thorsen and Jeremy Rolfe of the NZ Plant Conservation Network for permission to use their photographs on this page.

Parsonsia heterophylla, Poapoa, in flower
Photograph: (c) Mike Thorsen, NZPCN.
Poapoa flower and buds (enlarged)
Photograph: (c) Jeremy Rolfe, NZPCN.

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