*Fau [Proto Polynesian]


Entelea arborescens (Malvaceae) and Pseudopanax arboreus (Araliaceae).


Alternative names for Entelea arborescens: hauama, houama, whauama, whauma , from Proto-Polynesian*Fau + ama (Proto-Polynesian *hama) "outrigger float". See also Whauwhau for information about Pseudopanax arboreus.

From Proto Polynesian *Fau Hibiscus tiliaceus, "Shore Hibiscus" (Malvaceae); through
Proto Malayo-Polynesian: *baRu Hibiscus tiliaceus;
Proto Oceanic: *paRu Hibiscus tiliaceus; and
Proto Eastern Oceanic: *vaRu Hibiscus tiliaceus.

Inflorescence of Entelea arborescens - Whau
Awhitu Peninsula. (c) John Swayer, NZ Plant Conservation Network

Foliage of Entelea arborescens - Whau
Awhitu Peninsula. (c) John Swayer, NZ Plant Conservation Network

Tongan: Fau (Hibiscus tiliaceus, "Beach Hibiscus", Malvaceae);
Samoan: Fau (Hibiscus tiliaceus);
Marquesan: Fau ~ Hau (Hibiscus tiliaceus);
Hawaiian: Hau (Hibiscus tiliaceus); Hau kuahiwi (Hibiscadelphus spp., Malvaceae);
Tahitian: Hau (Hibiscus tiliaceus);
Tuamotuan: Fau (Hibiscus tiliaceus);
Rarotongan: 'au (Hibiscus tiliaceus)

Houhere (Hoheria populnea & H. glabrata, Malvaceae)
Note: See the other linked pages (highlighted at the top of this page) for more information about the ancestral names, their modern descendents, and the plants they denote.


Although it belongs to a different botanical family, the New Zealand whau, Entelia arborescens, is highly reminiscent of its tropical namesake, the beach Hibiscus, Hibiscus tiliaceus, fau in Samoa and Tonga, and hau in Hawaii and Tahiti. The botanical name of the tropical fau also hints at the similarity - tiliaceus "resembling a Tilia", i.e. the family in which the genus Entelea was originally placed, before that family was placed in the wider grouping, Malvaceae.

Whau-capsuleThe whau, Entelea arborescens, is found only in Aotearoa, with two genetically distinct strains found along the West Coast of the North Island to the North-Western tip of the South Island, and the East Coast of the North Island respectively. It is a shrub or small tree (up to about 6 metres high) found naturally mainly on the edge of the forest in frost free, coastal locations. It has a smooth spotted bark and a trunk up to 25cm in diameter. The large, soft, very attractive leaves are 10-15 cm long and similar width, with serrated margins, conspicuous veins, and stalks up to 20 cm long. Laing and Blackwell (p. 257) call it the "New Zealand mulberry" on account of the shape of its leaves. It spring to mid-summer it produces beautiful white flowers about an inch across, with yellow stamens. The fruit are more like those of the castor-oil plant (which is from a very different family, the Euphorbiaceae) than either the whau or the mulberry (Moraceae), conspicuous dry capsules with flexible spiny hairs (see photograph on the left). The reason for these hairs remains a mystery -- they may have facilitated distribution of the seeds by moa, attaching themselves to the birds' plumage, but if so, the genetic differences between the east and west coast plants provides a new puzzle. More likely the seeds were naturally dispersed by wind and water, but this hypothesis has also yet to be verified.

The wood of the whau is extremely light, about half as light again as cork, so was used traditionally for floats for fishing nets, rafts, and probably outriggers for small waka (hence the alternative names hau-ama and whau-ama). A small carved piece of whau was also used in a catching game, where it was tossed among players arranged in lines facing each other -- each time the stick was dropped, that player was eliminated, until contest between the last two survivors determined the outcome. Murdoch Riley recounts a story about Marama (whom he calls a priestess on the Tainui waka), who as a result of a sexual indiscretion was punished by her atua, which caused the kumara she planted to turn into pōhuehue (convolvulus) and the aute (paper mulberry) into whau. Leslie Kelly refers to Marama as the second wife of Hoturoa (the Captain of the Tainui). He mentions the indiscretion, but not the result of her horticultural endeavours. On landing in Kawhia, Hoturoa left his first wife (Whakaotirangi) to live with Marama.Whakaotirangi then travelled to Aotea and established very successful plantations which Hoturoa later was summoned to bless -- not long afterwards Marama found Hoturoa to be a most unsatisfactory babysitter, and departed in turn to become the founding ancestor of her own iwi.

The way the two strains of whau are distributed, east/west in the North, and mixed from Auckland south (it is the only native species with this pattern of distribution), coupled with the fact that the plant was used by Māori before the arrival of Captain Cook, gives indirect evidence that it was both cultivated and transported to new locations by Māori horticulturalists before European settlement. We know this was the case with both karaka and rengarenga, which were distributed well beyond their natural boundaries by Māori gardeners, but the direct evidence to support this scenario for the whau has yet to be found. It would seem that the natural southern boundaries for the whau would be the Kawhia harbour on the west, and Mahia peninsula on the East. However it is naturalized at places along both coasts and as far south as Tasman Bay, and in a few inland places as well. These and other matters are discussed in a very interesting paper by Lara Shepherd and associates in a very interesting paper in the NZ Journal of Botany, published online 26 February 2019 (see bibliography).

As with the other large-leaved plant, the rangiora, the leaves of the whau were for a while used as a substitute for paper for writing notes and love-letters -- a sharp piece of wood or a nail could be used as a stylus. Murdoch Riley also notes (p.504) that in the North the sap of the whau was used to preserve bodies, and its leaves (along with others) were used to treat piles. The jelly beneath the bark was also used to alleviate a difficult childbirth.

References and further reading: Publication details of the works referred to (Laing and Blackwells Plants of New Zealand, Leslie Kelly's Tainui, Murdoch Riley's Māori Healing and Herbal, along with the paper "Phylogeography of the endemic New Zealand tree Entelea arborescens (whau; Malvaceae)" by Lara Shepherd et al., will be found in the bibliography. See also the linked pages and general works on NZ trees.

Photographs: The two photographs above and the one on the right below were taken by the late John Sawyer and are used by permission. The photo on the left below is by another member of the NZ Plant Conservation Network, John Barkla, who has also kindly given us permission to use his photographs.

Fruiting Entelea arborescens, Whau, Auckland
Photograph (c) John Barkla, NZPCN
Entelea arborescens, Whau, in flower, Awhitu Peninsula
Photograph by John Sawyer, (c) NZPCN

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