12 Jun 2017

Expert feature: the Tōtara

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 2:30 pm on 12 June 2017

Philip Simpson has dedicated an entire book to one tree – the Tōtara.

Tōtara: A Natural and Cultural History is the third book the ethnobotanist has dedicated to a type of tree.

He talks about the historic uses and symbolism of our second largest native tree.

The Tōtara is a southern hemisphere conifer, otherwise known as a podocarp.

While conifers dominated the Jurassic world, there are now only about 700 species globally.

New Zealand is the only place in the world where conifers have become enormous trees like the Tōtara, Rimu, Kahikatea, Matai and Miro.

'Tara' is originally a Polynesian word meaning spiky or sharp, Simpson says. The word 'tō' he believes refers to the tree’s height.

Tōtara is New Zealand’s second largest tree – kauri being the largest – and has unique antimicrobial chemicals, a resin which has been nicknamed 'Tōtarol'.

Māori made use of the Tōtara’s durability using in their "equivalent of historical documents" carvings.

The tree’s inner bark is “like the skin of a bullock” he says and was heated and shaped into a watertight and airtight basket called a patua which Māori used for storing cooked birds.

The trees that Māori removed patua bark from are still in existence, Wilson says.

"You can go into the remains of a Tōtara forest and there you will find a scar gradually healing over."

Early Māori named, revered and made gifts of Tōtara down genealogical lines.

"Their durability, their usefulness, their role in waka, their appearance - the red bark with redness being a sacred colour, the bark resembling the fabulous moko of a chief, the chiefliness of the tree growing in the forest."

Māori identified trees that would potentially grow large enough to produce a waka while they were still young and removed the bark from one side.

At that point, the core of the tree stopped growing, but the edges continued to grow, Simpson says.

"After say, 200 or 300 years, an incipient waka stood, the waka was then cut down very carefully and the dead wood removed.”