Piwakawaka Mini Te Mära Reo ~ The Language Garden
*Ponga [Proto-Polynesian]

Ponga, Kaponga


Cyathea dealbata (Cyatheaceae)
Also, in some sources, Cyathea cunninghamii


This name in Mäori is the primary one for the tree fern Cyathea dealbata, stylized representations of its frond constituting, along with the kiwi, the most widely used symbol of New Zealand identity. In English it is also called the "silver fern" because of the silvery-white underside of the fronds. Its name, usually mispronounced as if it were "panga" ("punga" in English orthography) is also the generic word for tree ferns in New Zealand English, an interesting reversion to what may have been the source word's original meaning in Proto Polynesian, or perhaps an indication that this was indeed also a subsidiary meaning in Mäori.

R&W, drawing on Beever, list katöte (one of the names for a related species, C. smithii) as a synonym for ponga, and ponga as being also an alternative name for Cyathea cunninghamii, otherwise known as pünui. These usages are not recorded in Williams, and are probably local variants for the more widely-used names.

Like other members of the Cyathea family, the stipes and raches (stalks and midribs) of ponga fronds are covered with small scales, in contrast with the hairs characteristic of the Dicksonia species (e.g. the whekï), the other group of New Zealand tree ferns. As illustrated in the photographs below, the bottom portion of the stipes remain on the trunk after the rest of the old fronds fall off, and there is often a circle of old fronds still clinging to the top of the trunk below the fresh growth. (The trees in the photograph are about ten years old, with trunks around 2 metres high.) The species is endemic to New Zealand, and grows to about 10 metres high; it prefers open dryish forest and shrubland, and is one of a small group of native plants that will grow happily in pine forests. It is at its best in sheltered situations, as regular exposure to wind usually plays havoc with its otherwise highly decorative fronds.

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More Photographs of the Ponga
The Ponga in Traditional Maori Poetry and Proverbs

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PongaUnderside of Ponga frond (detail)

PPN: *Ponga (Tree ferns, especially of the family Cyatheaceae).

Tongan: Ponga (Sphaeropteris lunulata & Alsophila rugosula [Cyatheaceae]; Angiopteris commutata & A. evecta [Marattiaceae])
Samoan: Paoga (Cyathea truncata & Sphaeropteris lunulata [Cyatheaceae], also possibly formerly a general term for Cyathea & related species)
Rarotongan: Ponga (Cyathea dealbata); possibly panga (Cyathea decurrens)

Note: The Rarotongan ponga was introduced from Aotearoa, along with its name, comparatively recently.

PongaPonga crown - note scales on rachis (right of centre)

PongaPonga showing silvery underside of fronds

PongaSunlight through Ponga fronds

The ponga in Mäori proverbs and poetry

Elsdon Best (Forest Lore, p.95) mentions having been told by an East Coast kaumatua that ponga was used as a food, cooked for two days with tï. He was rather sceptical about this, and speculated (I think correctly) that his informant was using "ponga" as a generic term for tree ferns, and actually referring to the mamaku (Cyathea medullaris), which was actually used quite often for food (as, in emergencies, was the kätote, C. smithii). It is quite possible of course that when absolutely nothing else was available the bitter pith of the ponga might have been used as a last resort -- a line in the tewha (work song) Best's informant gave him seems to emphasise this: He ponga te kai tao ngata mä te mahi [Ponga, dry baked food for work]. The only proverbial saying I could locate referring directly to ponga also seems to emphasise its role as a food of last resort:

Tara-ao tätä ponga
["Tara-ao who broke the ponga into pieces". M&G 2233].

It refers back to a story about an internecine feud between brothers, one of whom, Tara-ao, escaped through a tunnel from his fortress when it was about to be overwhelmed, and had to make do with the most meagre fare in order to survive.

However, in Ngä Möteatea, the sole reference to ponga, in what seems to be a quote from an old karakia (incantatory formula) at the end of the classical oriori (didactic lullaby) Pinepine te kura, does group ponga with two other ferns which were relatively important sources of food, the mamaku (Cyathea medullaris) and the pananehu -- the young shoots of the rauaruhe (Pteridium esculentum):

Täia te waka nui, ka kai ki te kirikiri,
Ka kai ki te ponga,
Ka kai ki te mamaku
Ka kai ki te ngärara whakawai
Ka kai ki te pananehu,
E tama ë!
[Now haul the big canoe until it drags upon the sands,
Let it rest upon the ponga
Let it rest upon the mamaku
Let it rest upon teeming insects
Let it rest upon the pananehu
Oh son of mine!
NM 215, Vol 3, pp.78-81]

The notes to the text of the song do not indicate the precise significance of these lines. However, a very interesting explanation of the way they have been used in the chant is given by John Archer, on the page for Pinepine te Kura on his New Zealand Folk Song Website. In his view, it is a reiteration of earlier memories of the departure of the migratory waka from Hawaiki, now in the oriori a reminder to the descendents of Tūpurupuru, a Ngati Kahungunu rangatira, to include seafood in their diet, however meagre, and thus avoid the debilitating effects of their inland habitat, reinterpreting coded message in the line "Täia te waka nui, ka kai ki te kirikiri" as "but eventiually the great canoe will nibble at the sand". He elaborated on this in an email message to us:

I’ve figured out Pinepine finishes with by stating the belief that the two exit channels of Awa-rua harbour were the source of both bad and good things in Aotearoa. Then there follows a metaphorical example of each: first with a nightmare vision of the tribe’s waka arriving from Awarua and them being almost annihilated, but eventually, in good time, (Tai-a = like the tide, not Toia = haul) things change for the better, as our famished tribe, still in the image of a waka, first nibble at sand where there are only tiny gritty crustaceans, then force down some bitter ponga pith, then the more palatable monkey-tail fronds, then delicious huhu grubs, and finally exquisitely steamed young greens full of vitamins: a long-winded but very expressive way of saying Ka Mate; Ka Ora!

The first word in the quoted verse, Taia, probably does not refer either to hauling or to the tide itself, but rather to the waka's being dashed (taia) against the sand by the tide. And in that context the interpretation of the chant as a metaphorical account of the progression from hard times to better remains plausible. (The word pananehu, not translated in the Ngā Mōteatea volume, refers to the young fronds of the rauaruhe, the ancient equivalent of salad greens.)

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Further information. Almost any work on New Zealand plants and trees, or gardening in New Zealand will mention the ponga. Useful information and more pictures can be found on the New Zealand Plant Conservation Network's website, and there is interesting information on its medicinal uses (and such potentially lethal ones as providing poison to put on the tips of spears), along with more photographs, on the Auckland University's School of Biological Sciences website.

Photographs: All the photographs on this page are of ponga in Te Mära Reo..


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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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