Piwakawaka Mini Te Mära Reo ~ The Language Garden
*Tötara [Proto Central Eastern Polynesian]



Podocarpus totara & Podocarpus cunninghamii (Podocarpaceae),

Other inherited names: kahikawaka (Libocedrus plumosa) (see the linked page for information about this name; there is information about the tree itself on this page.)



Tötara in Mäori is the name of one of the largest and most esteemed forest trees, Podocarpus totara. This species belongs to a group of trees, the araucarians, which have been growing in Aotearoa for at least 100,000,000 years. It is shared by the botanically closely related mountain tötara, Podocarpus cunninghamii, and several other plants from different families: a low prostrate shrub of the heath family, Leupocogon fraseri, a moss, Polytrichum juniperinum, and another forest tree, tötara kiri kötukutuku Libocedrus plumosa (also known as kawaka). Podocarpus totara has male and female cones on different trees, and the female tree is known as kötukutuku, possibly because the bark is similar to that of the Kōtukutuku, Fuchsia excorticata -- the alternative name name of the kawaka (Libocedrus), tötara kiri kötukutuku, literally means either "tötara with the bark of a kōtukutuku", or possibly "tōtara with falling bark". Finally, another small heath, Leptecophylla juniperina, is known as pätötara.

The name tötara itself is derived from a Proto Oceanic word for spines, and cognate words are used in other Central Eastern Polynesian languages as the name of the puffer fish. All the New Zealand plants bearing this name have pointed leaves reminiscent of the puffer fish's spiny exterior.

Podocarpus totara

This is the tree most closely associated with the name tötara. It was (and remains) an extremely valuable forest tree, and was used for making seagoing canoes, carvings, and in the construction of large buildings. It is still the most sought-after timber for large carvings, and in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, until stocks became seriously depleted and conservation measures were finally implemeted, it also provided the wood for framing and joinery in thousands of new rural and urban houses throughout New Zealand. It grows up to 30m tall, and can live to 1,000 years or longer.

Because of its value and special properties the tötara was also a symbol of nobility, chieftanship and social solidarity. The latter significance is the subject of many proverbs, for example:

He tötara wähi rua, he kai nä te toki.
[A tötara split in two is food for the axe -- that is, a community whose leaders are at odds is in danger of being overcome by enemies or events. M&G #784]


E kore te tötara e tü noa i te pärae engari me tü i roto i te wao-nui-a-Täne
[The totara does not stand alone on the plain, it stands within the great forest. That is, a leader without followers and supporters cannot be effective. M&G #181]

And like the tötara, the mighty can fall when they become overconfident:

He iti te matakahi pakaru rikiriki te tötara
A wedge may be small, but it can reduce the tötara to splinters. M&G #431]

In laments, a child who has died is often referred to as he mähuri tötara, "a tötara sapling" which has been uprooted or broken off, or a similar idiom, as in this lament by the famous Ngäti Porou chief Te Kaniatakirau for his son, Waikari, believed to have been killed by mäkutu (witchcraft):

... Ka hinga kai raro
Taku köhuru tötara.
Ehara i te tangata
Taku kuru hauhanga
Taku whakateitei
Ki ngä whenua, nä, ë.
... Now fallen and lies there prone
My once sturdy tötara sapling
He was no ordinary mortal
My shelter from the bitter cold,
He was my renowned one
throughout the land, ah me..
.[NM 139, V.2, pp.190-1]]

And in oratory, the death of a notable person is often announced or referred to as the falling of a tötara in te wao-nui-a-Tāne, the great forest of Tāne.

In some traditions, the parentage or tutelage of the tötara is attributed to a personification of the war god Tū, as Tū-kau-moana "Tū who swims through the sea" -- a reference to the tötara as the ideal timber for ocean-going canoes, and also, indirectly, a closing of the circle back to the puffer fish.

Leucopogon fraseri

This is a prostrate shrub which keeps very close to the ground and often forms quite large patches in open places from coastal dunes to rocky patches on mountainsides. In recent years it has attracted attention as a rock garden plant. The Waitakere City Council has recommended it as potential cover for "greenroofs". Its versatility is attested by the descriptive adjuncts often appended to its name: tōtara papa "ground-covering tötara", tōtara pārae "tötara of the open country", and tōtara tāhuna "seaside tötara".

Leptecophylla juniperina

This ground-hugging shrub grows to about half a metre tall and is quite closely related to the Leucopogon (both species have been shifted in and out of the genera Leucopogon and Cyathodes, and, for L. fraseri, back again) by botanists, as members of a family Epacridaceae which is now merged with the wider heath family, Ericaceae). It was recognized by Mäori, particularly in the South Island, as having special medicinal properties, with decoctions of the leaves used for kidney problems, asthma and rheumatism. Murdoch Riley also reports that the wood was used for sinkers on eel bobs in Southland, and eels seizing the sinkers were quickly landed and dispatched with the same utensils. It is undoubtedly the shape and prickliness of the leaves which earned it the name pātōtara (it also goes under the alternative names mingimingi, mikimiki, tümingimingi, hukihukiraho, and ngohungohu). There are links to more information at the bottom of this page.

Libocedrus plumosa

This tree is generally known as kawaka, an abbreviation of an alternative name, kaikawaka, which in turn is an abbreviated form of its full name. kahikawaka, which looks suspiciously like a form of a much older word kahika (follow the link for more about that), and waka "canoe". It is another giant forest tree, but one which seems to flourish best (in terms of providing new generations) after calamities like fire, earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. Fortunately, individual trees may live as long as 1,000 years and reach 25 metres in height, so the calamaties do not have to be frequent to guarantee the tree's natural survival. There are links to more information and excellent photographs of this tree at the bottom of this page. As you can see from the enlarged photo of the leaflets in the opposite column, the resemblence to the puffer fish and its leafy namesakes is evident on this tree, too. The kahikawaka has an alternative name, tōtara kiri kōtukutuku, mentioned above. This probably related to the similarity of the bark of both the tōtara and, especially, the kahikawaka to that of the tree fuchsia, Fuchsia excorticata -- kōtukutuku, which may have gained its Maori name name from the way it "lets go" (tukutuku) of its bark. Certainly, all three trees share this quality.

Polytrichum juniperinum

Again, the spines of the puffer fish come to the fore when one tries to account for the word tötara's being adopted as the name for this plant (in this case, the only name, as far as I am aware). It is not a tree, or even a dwarf shrub, but rather a kind of moss. It is another NZ native plant that is coming to its own as a ground cover as it will grow in a range of habitats, although, like most mosses, it prefers the shade. There is a good photograph of a "flowering" (i.e. spore-bearing) plant and information about this and related species on the Auckland University's web site -- see link below.

Totara - Aurea"Golden" foliaged tötara (Podocarpus totara v. aurea) Te Mära Reo

xxxxxSpring growth & mature leaves (Podocarpus totara v. totara) Te Mära Reo

PPN: *Tötara Diodon hystrix (Diodontidae - a family of puffer fishes)
Mäori Reflexes: Tötara (Podocarpus totara [Podocarpaceae]; Leupocogon fraseri [Ericaceae]; Polytrichum juniperinum [Polytrichaceae]), Libocedrus plumosa [Cupressaceae]; Pätötara (Leptecophylla juniperina [Ericaceae]).

Tahitian:Tötara (Diodon hystrix [Diodontidae])
Hawaiian: Kökala (D. hystrix)
Tuamotuan: Tötara (D. hystrix)
Rarotongan: Tötara (D. hystrix)

Note: There are several other plant names associated directly or indirectly with marine creatures. The majestic kauri is traditionally paired with the whale, and Te Hapuku, the deity who is the protector of marine mammals is also the parent of the tree ferns, the dolphins of the forest -- in Hawaii, the cognate word häpu'u designates the tree ferns of the genus Cibotium, and in both languages also refers to a species of grouper.

L fraseri
Tötara papa (Leupogon fraseri)

PatotaraPätötara (Leptecophylla juniperina)

Kahikawaka (Libocedrus plumosa), also known as tötara.

Kawaka detailDetail of leaflets of (Libocedrus plumosa)

Totara (moss)Yet another Tötara (Polytrichum juniperinum)

Links: Here are a few of the web sites with informative pages on the plants noted here:
There are some very good photographs of Podocarpus totara on the University of Auckland's School of Biological Science's pages, and the NZ Plant Conservation Network's pages include a large gallery of photographs along with additional information about these trees.
The website of the Supporters of Tiritirimatangi has a photograph of Leptecophylla (ex Cyathodes) juniperina which clearly shows its "needle-sharp leaves";
There is a great deal of information about Libocedrus plumosa on the NZ Plant Conservation network's site, and also on that of the Department of Conservation ;
The Royal NZ Institute of Horticulture has information about Leucopogon fraseri ;
and some detailed information about the structure of Polytrichum juniperinum and its close relatives is also to found on the University of Auckland site.

Sources of photographs: The photograph of Leptecophylla juniperina is from the University of Tasmania's Plant Science web pages ; that of Polytrichum juniperinum is from the Hidden Forest site; those of Podocarpus totara are from Te Mära Reo, and the others are from the sites noted above.


Hue flower

Te Mära Reo, c/o Benton Family Trust, "Tumanako", RD 1, Taupiri, Waikato 3791, Aotearoa / New Zealand
Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License.