? *Kauere [Proto Rarotongan-Māori]

Kauere ~ Pūriri

Vitex lucens , "Pūriri" (Lamiaceae)



Kauere: Possibly from Proto Rarotongan Māori *Kauere, a tree name (see notes below).
Pūriri: A name originating in Aotearoa.

Mature Pūriri, Vitex lucens - Stony Bay, Coromandel
Photo: (c) Mike Thorsen, NZPCN
Puriri leaves
Leaves of Pūriri, Vitex lucens - Te Māra Reo
(Transplanted as a seedling from Taiamai, Bay of Islands)

From Proto-Rarotongan-Māori: *Kauere (An unlikely origin - see notes below)
Possibly: Rarotongan: (')au(')ere (Grewia crenata, Malvaceae).
More likely:
From Proto-Polynesian *Fau-sele; Proto-Eastern Polynesian *Fau-hele
Niuean: Fou hele (Abutilon indicum, Malvaceae);
Marquesan: Fau he'e ~ Hau he'e (Hibiscus tiliaceus var. sterilis. Malvaceae );
Hawaiian: Hauhele (Hibiscus arnottianus); Hauhele, Hauhele wai (Hibiscus furcellatus); Ma'o Hau Hele (Hibiscus brackenridgei); Hauhele 'ula (Kokia spp., Malvaceae)
Rarotongan: 'au'ere [recorded as auere (Savage, Buse, Pollex), 'auere (Rensch & Whistler; Whistler), au'ere (Cook Islands Biodiversity Database] (Grewia crenata, Malvaceae);
[Most likely cognate with Māori: Houhere (Hoheria populnea, Malvaceae), but not with Māori Kauere.]

To Houhere, and Rarotongan "auere": *Whau (Entelea arborescens, Tiliaceae).

The puriri is the forest glory of the land. The kauri is a thing of grandeur; the pohutukawa is a coast-edging of loveliness, but the puriri is the most plentiful and the most friendly of all trees. (James Cowan, 1929)
A colleague and friend of Te Māra Reo became interested in the origin of the name pūriri, the tree known botanically as Vitex lucens. There was no page for the pūriri on the web site at the time, but its alternative name, kauere, was on the list, and his enquiry has advanced the production of this page.

The pūriri is a coastal and lowland forest tree in Northland, which belongs to the same family (Lamiaceae) as the teak. Its natural range extends south to Taranaki in the west and Mahia in the east, but in its southern reaches it is always close to the sea. It is a stout, spreading tree with glossy dark-green leaves, growing to about 20 metres tall, with a trunk up to a metre and a half in diameter. There are three or five leaflets in each leaf -- the bottom two much smaller than the other three in the five-fold leaves. The timber is extremely hard and durable, and one of its English names in the 19th century was iron wood, because of it was likely to blunt an axe. Murdoch Riley (Herbal, p.376) reports that splinters were used as substitutes for iron knitting needles, although a prick from one of these could result in a nasty infection. An intransigent, perverse, cantankerous or stubborb person was also referred to as "He pūriri mingimingi" -- a cross-grained pūriri (M&G 666)

The reddish-pink flowers of the pūriri are larger and more spectacular than those of most New Zealand trees (over an inch long, and borne in profusion in the colder months -- in some trees, all year round). They are followed by bright red spherical berries, wich are eaten with gusto by kererū and other birds. The flowers are favourites of honey eaters, like the tūī, which also are its main pollinators.

The puriri was a sacred tree and was protected when fires were lit to clear new land for kumara gardens. Laing and Blackwell (Plants, p. 297) note that it is the only New Zealand tree strong enough to resist strangulation by the epiphytic rātā (Metrosideros robusta): "It may sometimes be seen bursting the encircling roots of the epiphyte". As the strongest and among the most durable of trees its timber was excellent for boat building and fence posts, although, according to the Tāne's Tree Trust there is still little technical information available about its properties. It is also the host of the mokoroa, the destructive lava of the pepe tuna (pūriri moth -- Aenetus virescens, Hepialidae), about which more later, which can destroy both timber and tree with its tunneling.

The name "Pūriri" seems to have originated here in Aotearoa, and applies exclusively to the pūriri tree. The tree does feature in several proverbs, in several different guises. Giving it an etymology at present would be pure guesswork, but some interesting metaphorical leads have been suggested. Some linguists link the other name, kauere to the Rarotongan word auere. Kauere is used on the East Coast, which would give some plausibility to the Rarotongan link, but the only thing that the Rarotongan plant with a partly similar name has in common with the Pūriri would seem to be its dark-coloured berry. (The Rarotongan auere is a tropical shrub, Grewia crenata, related to the houhere -- as pobably also is the Rarotongan name, because it has also been recorded by one reliable source as au'ere, and by another as 'auere.) So in its kauere guise the Pūriri might possibly have linguistic links to Rarotonga (although this is doubtful), but as Pūriri it seems definitely to be home grown!

Names of people, places and objects generally do not come straight out of the blue -- many millenia have passed since people began speaking well-developed languages, and new words generally arise directly or indirectly from those already known (whether in their own language or some other) by their inventors. The pūriri does have a close relative which grows in many other parts of Polynesia, the "medicinal Vitex", Vitex trifolia, known as rara or lala in Eastern Polynesia and namulega in Samoa. Because it is such a large and important tree, it is surprising that the pūriri did not attract a traditional name. Yet this does appear to be the case.

Taitokerau oral tradition offers at least two stories, both highly plausible, about the origin or associations of the name. One is that it refers back to an incident involving the pre-eminent ancestor Rāhiri (who lived around 1600 AD), symbolizing te pakiaka o te riri (the root () of his anger). It is also regarded as the representation of Tāne with his arms outstretched separating earth and sky, thus the anger of some of the children of Rangi and Papa at being deprived of light, and the anger of others with those of their siblings who, like Tāne, were responsible for separating their parents. The story involving Tāne could well be the older one, and explain why the word pūriri replaced any earlier name. It's difficult to imagine that the Pūriri tree went completely unrecognized by the first arrivals and thus merited a completely new name from the start. However old names can be changed through the passage of time by a variety of processes, including fashion, forgetfulness, or even decree -- commonly in Tahitian and occasionally in Māori an element in a chief's name, especially that of a deceased ariki, would become tapu, and all words with that element be changed. Often the old name would be revived later, especially if the rāhui were local in scope, but occasionally the old name would be permanently supplanted. One notable example of a temporary substitution in Māori was the replacement of wai as the word for water, and in combination with other elements, by ngongi. For example, in Mōteatea No. 72 (NM Part One), there is the line:

Nā te kamo anake tana ngongi hua noa ....
From mine eyes tears burst forth unbidden.
Pei te Hurinui comments thus:
Ngongi. Ki ētahi 'ngohi': he hē tērā. Ko tōna tikanga he 'wai'. He urunga nō tērā kupu 'wai' ki te ingoa o tētahi rangatira ka whakatītahatia, ka kīia he 'ngongi': koia ēnei kupu. "Ngongirua me te 'wairua mā ngongi e titiro te ao ka rere mai?'
Tears. In some versions 'ngohi', which is incorrect. The meaning of 'ngongi' is water 'wai'. The word 'wai' (water) once formed part of the name of a chief, and a substitute word was used and it (wai or water) was called 'ngongi'; hence such words as 'Ngongirua' and the expression 'wairua mā ngongi e titiro te ao ka rere mai?'
"Ngongirua" is substituted for "wairua" in the opening line of He waiata mō Te Moana-Papaku, by Topeora of Ngati Toa (NM 49):
Kāore te ngongirua o te tau rā nā Karanga ...
Always the spirit of the loved one of Karanga ...
In his Dictionary H.W. Williams quotes several more such substitutions from poems recorded in Sir George Grey's collection of Moteatea (1853), one a place name, and another which had nothing to do with water -- the sound alone was sufficient to require the change:
ngongi e titiro te ao kia rere mai?
[Normallywai ...]
Who can see the world to come?
Ka taihuri atu nā ki Ngongikato
[I] turn then towards Waikato
This still leaves the question of where the word kauere came from. It may well be an older term than Pūriri, but it has no known cognates (apart from the extremely doubtful similarity to Rarotongan "auere") elsewhere in Polynesia. The flowers may have suggested a vague similarity to the shell of the Uere, the shellfish Amalda australis (the "southern olive", Olividae). Since on the East Coast the pūriri is found natively almost entirely in littoral ecosystems, a link with the marine ecosystem in local tradition would not be at all surprising. But uere also seems to be a name unique to Aotearoa, so one puzzle simply replaces the other. If anyone reading this has further information about any of these names, we would be delighted to hear about it.

The East Coast connection comes to the fore in references to the pūriri / kauere as "Ngā motumotu o te ahi o Whironui" -- Whironui's firebrands (M&G 2027). Whironui was the father-in-law of Paikea. While Paikea was wandering along the coast in search of his home after being put ashore by the whale on Ahuahu (Great Mercury Island), he met and married Whironui's daughter, Huturangi, at Kautuku, near East Cape. After a while, he resumed his search, this time in company with Whironui and his family, still believing that the whale had brought him back to Hawaiiki after it had rescued him from his fratricidal brother Ruatapu. At last he saw what he thought was the place, Whāngārā-ki-Tawhiti (now also Whāngārā), and settled there, building a pā for Whironui and supplying him with pūriri for firewood.

In the North, the pūriri growing in abundance on the fertile volcanic soils of the inland Bay of Islands region have given rise to the expression "Ka kata ngā pūriri o Taiamai" -- the pūriri of Taiamai are laughing, a metaphor of good news and welcome, and also of the durability and resiliance of these trees, which continue to flourish and laugh despite the ravages of war and rivalry which have disturbed the peace of this much sought-after territory over the centuries. A line of pūriri at Mangatawhiri on the southern edge of the Bombay Hills, near Pokeno, also marks the southern boundary of Ngāpuhi nui tonu. The pūriri, like the strong man, woman, or nation, must, however be wary of overconfidence and underrating weak opposition -- the small, delicate caterpillar, the mokoroa, by its steady, unobtrusive chomping, can fell even the mighty pūriri in the fulness of time:

He iti mokoroa ka hinga te pūriri.
Although the mokoroa is small, the pūriri falls.
(M&G #423)
Despite its status as a symbol of strength and resilience, and its function as a meeting place and boundary marker like the biblical oaks, the pūriri does not figure in Biblical translations as a subsitute for a Hebrew or Greek plant name with similar significance (as do, for example, the rimu and the kauri). Nor is it mentioned in the poems and songs in the first three volumes, at least, of Sir Apirana Ngata's Nga Mōteatea.

References and further reading: There is a variety of information about the Pūriri in the works referred to in the text, also John Dawson and Ron Lucas's books NZ Native Trees and Guide to the NZ Forest, among others, along with the Tane's Tree Trust species profile and the NZ Plant Conservation Network's web site. An account of Paikea's arrival in Aotearoa and subsequent travels can be found in Margaret Orbell's Māori Mythology (p. 130). There is an informative article on the pepe tuna (pūriri moth) in John Early's Insects and Spiders, and further information about the Uere shellfish on the Marinelife website. Full publication details of the books mentioned can be found in the bibliography. The quote from James Cowan is from his article "The puriri trees are laughing with joy", NZ Railways Magazine, Vol 3, No 12 (April 1, 1929).

Information about the (')au(')ere is hard to find, and there seem to be few photographs available. The most useful and accessible may be those in the Cook Islands biodiversity database. See also the page for Proto-Polynesian *Fausele.

Photographs & Acknowledgements : We are grateful to Mike Thorsen and the late John Sawyer for permission to use their photographs from the NZPCN database. Our thanks also to the Department of Conservation and the two photographers who have made images available through the Wikipedia Commons, Graham Bould and Tony Wills. I am also indebted to Brad Haami for the exchange of views and information which precipitated the production of this page!

Puriri flower
Pūriri (Vitex lucens) in flower
Photo: (c) Mike Thorsen, NZPCN
Puriri Moth
Fruit of pūriri ripening in December, East Cape
Photo: John Sawyer (c) NZPCN
Puriri flower
Newly transplanted Pūriri sapling,
Te Māra Reo
Puriri sculpture
Pūriri scuplture "Colours IV" by Rick Swain (NZ)
Photo: Te Māra Reo
Puriri flower
Pūriri in flower, Algies Bay, Auckland
Photo: John Sawyer, (c) NZPCN
Puriri Moth
Female Pepe-tuna (Pūriri moth) Aenetus virescens
Photo: Tony Wills (via Wikipedia)
Mokoroa in tree trunk (note 7-shaped entrance shaft/vertical shaft combination) Photo: Department of Conservation, Reference 10033132
Shell of Uere "Southern Olive ", Amalda australis.
Photo: Graham Bould, via Wikipedia.

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