*Tawa [Proto Polynesian]


Beilschmiedia tawa (Lauraceae)


The unripe fruit of this tree is known as Māriri, from probably from Proto Nuclear Polynesian *malili

From Proto Polynesian *Tawa, Pometia pinnata (Family); from
Proto Central Pacific: *Tawa, Pometia pinnata,
Proto Oceanic: *Tawan, Pometia pinnata, and
Proto Eastern Malayo-Polynesian: *Tawan, Pometia pinnata.

Tongan, Niuean, Samoan, Rarotongan : Tava (Pometia pinnata, "Island lychee", Sapindaceae)
Tuamotuan: Tava (Pandanus sp., Pandanaceae)

Mariri (the unripe fruit of the New Zealand tawa). See the linked pages (highlighted at the top of this page) for more information about the ancestral names, their modern descendents, and the plants they denote.

TawaTawa, Beilschmiedia tawa, with its sister-species, the taraire (B. taraire), is a New Zealand representative of a predominantly tropical genus, which in turn is a member of the laurel family (as is the avocado). Tawa is (or was, before the widespread felling of the indigenous forests) found throughout the North Island, and in the northeastern part of the South Island, from sea level to about 300 metres, although more in inland forests than right on the coast. (The taraire has a more restricted range, with its southern boundary stretching from Raglan across to the East Coast).

December is the month when the tawa berry starts to ripen. The pulp (pokere), including the kernel, was prepared as a food by Tuhoe. I haven’t tasted it myself, but the late Sir John Turei told me it was like a potato porridge, and as far as children were concerned, quite a treat in the season. In some places the fruit is called pokerehū. Kererū [the NZ native pigeon] love to feast on the uncooked fruit. For people, however, it’s best cooked, as the uncooked flesh is rather astringent. In many ways it is the inland counterpart of the karaka (Corynocarpus laevigata), which was in season a staple food for many coastal people up until the arrival of American potatoes and other crops. The similarity to the karaka is twofold -- they are both largish fruit with edible flesh, and the kernels are edible when roasted (unlike karaka, uncooked tawa kernels are not poisonous, however).

Tawa is a tall tree (up to 35 metres high), but it normally keeps its head down below the forest canopy, so is not so easily spotted as rimu and kauri which break through the roof. It has smooth grey bark and willowy. light-green leaves. The large dark purple fruits have seeds too large for other forest birds to swallow, so it is a pigeon food par excellence. (Murdoch Riley, Herbal p.449, recounts a Māori legend that the kererū owes its horse voice, able to utter only 'kūkū', to its ancestors having gorged themselves on tawa berries.) The light, strong wood was also used for making bird spears 25-30 feet long, so the tree also contributes to the luckless kererū's suffering for its gluttony. The wood can burn easily when green, and can be used for almost any purpose, from bird-spears and musical instruments to weatherboards (if treated with preservative). However, it isn’t very durable, and the sapwood is prone to attack from certain beetles. But it’s a very attractive wood for indoor use, and several floors of the Beehive feature tawa paneling and flooring. It has also been used extensively for paper manufacturing. The tree has medicinal properties, with decoctions of the bark said to be useful for disinfecting wounds or relieving stomach pains (the latter can arise from eating tawa berries by themselves!). The bark is known to contain beta-sitosterol, a component of drugs which lower blood-cholesterol levels (Brooker et al., 1987, p. 150). The pulp was dried in the sun (sometimes after first steaming), and, as well as the porridge mentioned above, the reconstituted pulp made into cakes sweetened with nectar from flax (harakeke, Phormium tenax) flowers or, after bees were introduced from Europe, honey.

Murdoch Riley and Tony Forster (Plant Heritage) both note the tradition that Hīnu and Tawa are children of Tāne by Mangōnui -- with the whakapapa quoted by Mr Forster adding Taraire and Miro, other forest trees noted for their edible berries, to the family. Meade and Grove have collected four pēpeha relating to this tree:

He ahi tawa ki uta, he kumu tarakihi ki te moana.
[A tawa fire on land and a tarakihi fish at sea -- when tawa berries are roasted they make a loud popping sound, and a shoal of tarakihi feeding near the shore is also noisy; the saying thus applies to the noise of children playing and similar phenomena. M&G #348]

He tawa parā, he whati kau tāna.
[Ripe tawa are easily crushed -- as is the resolve of a weak-willed person. M&G #754]

Ka mahi te tawa uho ki te riri.
[Well done, kernel of the tawa fruit fighting on. In contrast to the pulp, the hard kernel of the fruit provides a metaphor for the steadfast campaigner. M&G #1021.]

Tahakura e, ka horo tō pā. Waiha rā kia whakarangona te reka o tēnei mea o te tawa tapī.
["Oh Tahakura, your pā is about to fall!" "Let it be until you smell the aroma of the tawa fruit cooking". [M&G #2182]
One reference to the tawa in Nga Mōteatea will be found in the page on kuru (the ancient word for breadfruit). There are two others which are obscure, without explanation in the accompanying notes: "te ringa rau tawa" (NM #223, l.17, literally "the tawa-leaf hand") translated as "the adorned hand", and "tawa ririki" (NM #300, l.36) "little tawa", in a context where it could be a star name, but if so it is not in any of the easily available lists of these terms. However, there is one other mention of it, which makes it clear that tawa spears were not used only for hunting birds:
He rau heketara, ē, te kupu rere mai i tawhiti,
He werowero tawa, he mākiri rangi.
[Like the fragrant heketara leaf were the tidings from afar,
Alas, 'twas tawa spears on that deceptive day.
] He Tangi mō Te Umu-Kohukohu, No. 266, Nga Mōteatea Part 3, pp. 422-423.
The illustration of the tawa leaves and fruit comes from the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand. The leaves are quite large, up to about 15 cm long (with a stalk about a tenth of that), about 6 cm. wide (not always quite as narrow viewed straight on from above as the sketch might suggest, but generally giving a rather willowy impression, nonetheless), light green and glossy on top. There is a dense reddish-brown “fur” (tomentum) on the undersides of young leaves which continues to mark out the veins of mature leaves. The bark is dark brown, but (like many native trees) offers a good anchorage for lichen which can give it a much lighter appearance. Mature trees will develop buttress roots, but how long this takes (or how long you’d have to wait for a seedling to start bearing fruit for you or your kererū), I’m not sure.

Interestingly, the fruit of the tawa before it ripens is called māriri, perhaps because it is reminiscent in shape and colour of the fruit of the tropical mālili (Terminalia spp.) which in Samoa and the Marquesas are favourites of the native pigeons. The tropical Tawa (Pometia pinnata) is also a tall forest tree, with conspicuous buttress roots like its namesake in Aotearoa, growing to about 40 metres. The leaves are broader (although still tapering) and arranged differently from its namesake in Aotearoa, but the fruit of both is similar in appearance and sought after by birds and people alike.

References and further reading: There is quite a bit of information about this tree on the NZ Plant Conservation Network's web site -- however, the etymological information on their "Tawa" page is inaccurate: the use of tawa as a colour term, denoting "purple", is indeed a reference to the colour of the ripe fruit, but is derived from the plant name, not vice-versa as the NZPCA database states!

The details of the books by Murdoch Riley and Brooker et al. are in the bibliography.

Photographs:The illustration of the Tawa leaves and fruit is by Martha King, 1803?-1897 in Edward Jerningham Wakefield, Illustrations to "Adventure in New Zealand". Plate 13, no 2 - Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, Reference No. PUBL-0011-13-2


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