*Polo [Proto-Polynesian, from Proto Central Pacific *Poro]

Poro, Pōporo, Poroporo

Solanum aviculare, S. lacianatum, S. nodiflorum & S. nigra (Solanaceae)


Alternative name: kuru, a tree mentioned in traditional narratives as growing in Tahiti or Hawaiki, from Proto-Polynesian *kulu, "Breadfruit" Altocarpus altilis.

From Proto Oceanic *Mpodo "A plant", Species & Family unknown; through
Proto Central Pacific: *Poro Solanum spp. (Solanaceae)
Proto Polynesian: *Polo Solanum spp.

Solanum aviculare
Solanum aviculare flower

Solanum aviculare
Solanum aviculare flower & foliage

Tongan, Polo (Solanum nigrum, Solanaceae)
Niuean, Samoan: Polo (Solanum spp.)
Rapanui: Poporo A berry whose juice is mixed with ashes of tī leaves in tatooing (Umbeliferae)
Hawaiian: Pōpolo (Solanum nigrum)
Tahitian:Porohiti (Solanum anthropophagorum)
Tuamotuan: Poroporo (Solanum spp.)
Rarotongan: Poro'iti (Solanum viride)
Rarotongan: Poroporo (Solanum americanum); also Vaccinum cereum & V. reticulatum (Ericaceae)

Kuru (Breadfruit, known from traditional narratives and chants - Artocarpus altilis, Moraceae)
Note: See the other linked page/s (highlighted at the top of this page) for more information about the ancestral names, their modern descendents, and the plants they denote.

In New Zealand Māori, Solanum aviculare is also known by the locally-developed names kohoho and peoi. Solanum nigrum is also called raupeti, remuroa, and tūpurupuru.

In Aotearoa the names pōporo and poroporo have been used to designate two small trees which are very similar in appearance -- Solanum aviculare (illustrated on this page, with lavender flowers and green stems) and S. laciniatum (with purple stems and deep blue-purple flowers) -- and two smaller shrubby herbs, the nightshades S. nigrum and S. nodiflorum. Solanum nodiflorum is native to New Zealand, although it is also found elsewhere in the Pacific; S. nigrum found its way here with people, possibly with the early Polynesian explorers, or else shortly after the first contacts between their descendents and the non-Austronesian world.

With all these plants the berries are edible only when ripe; the unripe fruit and uncooked foliage is poisonous. Nonetheless the ripe poroporo were a useful supplementary food source. The trees (S. aviculare and S. laciniatum), which grow to around 3 metres tall, or even higher in favoured environments, were planted around Maori settlements where they provided fruit for children (especially) to eat and also leaves with which to line the hängi to enhance the flavour of the meat. The fruit were also very popular with the first European settlers, who used them for jam and fruit pies, calling them "bull-a-bull" or "Maori gooseberries". They are certainly loved by birds, and most of the many plants of S. aviculare in the garden have established themselves where birds have dropped the seeds. If you are thinking of eating them raw, don't be conned by the colour of the fruit -- they are not really ripe until the bright orange berries are starting to burst. The smaller poroporo have shiny black fruit, which may remain poisonous even when ripe, so are best avoided by human beings despite their pleasant taste.

We find S. aviculare seedlings to be very useful thermometers -- these plants at any age are quite sensitive to frost, and we know that young plants which are undamaged by frost are in frost-free locations. July 2009 was a terrible month as we had the lowest minimum temperatures for about 20 years, and we had a frost also in September, which is quite unusual; fortunately, we had the poroporo seedlings to indicate where further plantings of frost-tender species should be either avoided or concentrated. (October 2009 was the coldest October for 64 years, but fortunately there were no frosts affecting Te Māra Reo.)

We find the two smaller smaller species of poroporo useful weed suppressants, even though they are regarded as weeds themselves (since they have heritage names, they will have a permanent place in the garden anyway). They look quite similar, but S. nodiflorum is the one with white flowers borne in fairly tight clusters. There is an excellent illustrated account of how to distinguish them apart in the linked National Museum (Te Papa) blog entry at the bottom of this page.

The tree poroporo, S. aviculare, has various medicinal properties, especially relating to the treatment of skin disorders, and it was an important source of the active ingredient of a modern oral contraceptive manufactured in Eastern Europe, which supported a poroporo plantation in Taranaki until disaster in the form of an unseasonal frost struck and the East European pharmaceutical companies developed a synthetic alternative to the natural product.

The flowers of S. aviculare are sometimes white (although none in our garden have this character), and, as can be seen in the photograph opposite, S. nigrum flowers also can vary in colour, even on the same plant. S. nodiflorum has consistently white flowers, but highly variable foliage.

The juice from the leaves of the poroporo trees was used as a sort of glue and colour-enhancer, appled to the doors of houses or the wood of a canoe before red ochre was applied (M. Riley, Maori Herbal, p. 361). The plant name itself has colour associations, with secondary meanings of "darkened" or "black", probably in reference either to the fruits of the herbal species, or the use of the juice of the leaves of S. aviculare mixed with soot to trace the outlines of a tatoo before the incisions were made. The poet musician Hirini Melbourne used the term wai poroporo ("poroporo juice") to represent the colour violet in his song about the rainbow.

kulu The other meaning of pōporo or poroporo has come from the substitution of this word for the older word kuru in some references to an incident that led to the migration to Aotearoa of Tamatekapua on the waka Te Arawa. This was the consequence of a series of nocturnal raids which stripped all the fruit from a pōporo tree (clearly identified in other traditional narratives as a kuru, breadfruit) belonging to the ancestral figure Uenuku, which features in the traditions relating to the migration of the first Polynesians from the homeland of Hawaiki to Aotearoa, and metaphors referring to this tree (see Ngā mahi a ngā Tūpuna, pp. 54 sqq, and the page for "kuru").

References and further reading: Solanum nigrum, S. nodiflorum and S. americanum have often been confused in botanical descriptions and classfications, as all three species have come to occupy the same geographical areas and have many similarities. There is a good description of Solanum americanum and a comparison between the characteristics of that species and and S. nigrum in the Bishop Museum Cook Islands database:
http://cookislands.bishopmuseum.org/species.asp?id=6655. The New Zealand National Museum (Te Papa) has an on-line blog, one entry on which has a helpful illustrated guide on how to distinguish the introduced S. nigrum from the native S. nodiflorum:


Photographs: Solanum photographs from Te Māra Reo. Breadfruit, Honolulu (R.B.)

Solanum nodiflorum
Solanum nodiflorum
Solanum nigrum
Solanum nigrum
This species is not native to Aotearoa, but has been naturalized for more than a century, and possibly much longer. It could well be another "canoe plant".

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