Jean Mason: To know our trees is to save them

Saturday May 23, 2020 Written by Jean Mason Published in Environment
A miro tree outside Bite Time at Punanga Nui Market. 20052217 / 20051579 A miro tree outside Bite Time at Punanga Nui Market. 20052217 / 20051579

Cook Islands Library and Museum curator Jean Mason is passionate about the conservation of trees. She believes that if we can identify trees, especially tupuna trees, they can be pruned to make sure they live on for hundreds of years.

Our ancestors lived in harmony with the natural environment.  They had to, such was their dependence on it. Trees sustained the lives of our tupunaand were integral to the culture of the Maori people of Cook Islands. 

The appreciation for trees and their contribution to the biodiversity, beauty, history and culture of the Cook Islands, never mind the shade and coolness they provide in the summer months, seems almost entirely absent in Rarotonga where the very environment that attracts tourists is being destroyed by the uncontrollable desire to benefit from it. 

In Auckland at Emily Place the pohutukawa trees, planted at about the same time as New Zealand’s first parliament was built in the same grounds, are studiously protected. 

In Sherwood Forest are preserved the remnants of the 1000-years-old ‘Parliamentary Oak’ where Richard I is said to have summoned his knights in parliamentary session immediately upon hearing Wales was in revolt. Every effort is made to preserve the tree despite its limbs sagging and breaking off with age.

By contrast on Rarotonga on Parliament’s grounds grew a rare coconut tree with extraordinarily large fruit ideal for making ka’a (sennit) which was destroyed for no obvious reason other than the need for another car-parking space. 

It was believed there was a pua (Fagraea berteroana) tree at Blackrock, whether real or imagined we are unsure, and its branches were like a family tree and as the spirits departed for Avaiki they would be attached to the branch that belonged to their family. 

Now the pua, formerly prized, is all but gone. There are only a few trees remaining on Rarotonga.

Its destruction began with the missionaries seeking to expel local animistic beliefs by destroying the nature that sustained them and sadly this has, ironically, continued with the worship of mammon.

Legend says that a giant ava (banyan)in Ruatonga was inhabited by a fierce cannibal who was killed by two great warriors. That tree is now gone. 

To destroy our trees is not only to deprive ourselves of beauty and shade, a home for the birds and flowers to provide nectar for honey bees, it extinguishes our history and insults those who planted them. Many countries have laws preserving trees of note and rarity. We have none. 



MIRO (Pacific Rosewood: Thespesia populnea)

This large, spreading lowland tree, which grows up to 12 metres in height, was probably an ancient introduction by the early Maori settlers, or was naturally introduced because of its buoyant, salt-water resistant seeds. 

Its main use was for timber due to its oily, hard, durable, reddish wood which resists rot in salt water. It is considered to be one of the most popular carving woods.  

Like the tamanu it was once considered a sacred tree and was commonly planted around marae (temples).

The rustling of miro leaves was said to be the prayers of worshippers being carried to the heavens above. A number of miro trees can still be found surrounding the marae next to the koutu (royal court) at Arai Te Tonga in O’oa.

Miro timber is much favoured for making drums (pate; tokere), tool handles, canoe parts, paddles (oe), kumete (bowls), and household items. 

The tree also has some medicinal uses: a solution of the bark is used to treat teething babies; the fruit or seeds are used to treat headaches; a solution of crushed tamanu fruits, along with nono fruits and grated kava are used to treat urinary tract infections. 

Locally endangered, a couple of mature miro trees can be found in Punanga Nui Market and some young ones on the reclaimed land next door.  

2. TOA (Iron wood, She-oak, Casuarina equisetifolia)

‘Out of place in the wanton tropics’ was how English writer Somerset Maugham described this tree. An apt description since toa’s needle-like leaves look more like something you would expect to find on plants that grow in a desert.

Toa is known as Iron wood, She-oak or Casuarina equisetifolia. 20052218

The soft leaves, which never cease to move in the trade winds, make a continuous ‘sshh’ sound, giving it its other English name. With its long, drooping branches, this tree can grow up to 25 metres or more in height. 

It is native to southeast Asia and northern and north-eastern Australia and was introduced to Cook Islands by early Maori settlers.

The tree was valued not just for its soil binding properties (hence the reason our forebears planted them along the coasts of our islands) but also for its timber, which is dense, extremely hard and durable.

The wood was traditionally favoured for house posts (poupou are), tapa beaters (ike), spears and clubs (korare and momore), hurling discs (pua), large fish hooks (matau), tool handles and canoe parts.

The tree was also valued (and still is) for its medicinal uses: an infusion of grated inner bark is used for treating thrush in babies, urinary tract infections, and in stronger concentrations is used to induce vomiting. 

The word ‘toa’ is synonymous with a warrior, or a courageous person.  

A mature toa tree was referred to as toa-taiki. A wooden spear, called taiki, much talked about in legends and pe’e, was made from the heartwood of toa, also called taiki.

Toa-taiki also meant a seasoned warrior, an invincible fighter. Hawai‘i-based botanist Arthur Whistler describes the toa trees on Makea Tinirau Rd, in front of the Cook Islands Christian Church at Avarua, as “some of the most magnificent in the Pacific”.

Like the tamanu, this hardwood does not like a severe pruning and may not bounce back after such treatment. 

3. TAMANU (Island Mahogany; Calophyllum inophyllum) 

A highly-esteemed tree in ancient times, tamanu leaves are described in ancient pe’e, together with miro leaves, as being worn by Maori people on their bodies during sacred rites.

A person of great mana or a leader in the community who has died, is often described as a shady tamanu tree having fallen: “kua inga tetai pu tamanu marumaru”. 

Tamanu is also called Island Mahogany, or Calophyllum inophyllum). 20052219

Another ancient introduction by our ancestors, this littoral tree can grow to 20 metres or more in height, and was highly favoured for its timber and also as a shade tree in the villages.

The hard, fine-grained reddish wood was commonly used for outrigger canoe hulls, sculptures, house posts (poupou are), drums (pate; tokere), and furniture and is still considered one of the best carving woods. 

The tree also has a number of medicinal uses: a solution of the leaves, bark or seed are used to treat skin sores (une and tona) and itchy skin; an oil from the seed is used to treat rheumatism, and a solution of crushed leaves is used on eye injuries and blurry vision. 

Its fragrant flowers are also used to scent coconut oil (in Tokelau) and to make flower leis (in Hawai’i). A slow-growing tree, it does not like to be pruned severely as a number of dead trunks around the island of Rarotonga will testify.    

Locally endangered, there are a handful of tamanu trees remaining on the roadsides of Rarotonga. One large tree can be seen in the road ‘islands’ in front of Punanga Nui Market. 

4.  TOU (Cordia; Island Walnut; Cordia subcordata)

This coastal tree, which grows up to 15 metres, was favoured as a shade tree. Another ancient introduction to the Cook Islands, it was highly valued for its soft but durable and attractive wood.

With its beautifully-grained dark and light bands, the wood is still valued highly for carving bowls (kumete), paddles (oe), furniture and drums (pate; tokere).

Its round seeds, which are edible, were eaten by hungry children and nectar sucked from the flowers. Several parts of the tree were used to produce dyes to paint tapa (bark cloth).

The leaves produce a brown dye and the roots a reddish dye. In the northern group, bark fibres were woven into clothing (prior to the arrival of Christianity) and up until a decade or so ago, used for decorations on dance costumes, mats and wooden artifacts.

A solution of the leaves, miro fruits, and nono fruits, is used to treat abdominal pain and urinary tract problems.

A young tou tree can be seen in the grounds of the Cook Islands Library and Museum and an old tree can be found on the beach in front of Paradise Inn at Tupapa.  

Sources: traditional knowledge; Cook Islands Biodiversity Database; Plants of the Canoe People by Arthur Whistler. 

Note: The quantities of the ingredients used in the traditional medicine ‘recipes’ are not specified (and some of the ingredients have not been included at all) so making your own for use is dangerous and not recommended.  

1 comment

  • Comment Link Niki Rattle Sunday, 24 May 2020 12:05 posted by Niki Rattle

    Kia Orana Jean.....thank you for your article that is caring & convincing for the preservation of our nature, culture, medicinal & mere appreciation of everything that is all
    good for all Cook Islanders to wake up to, before they all disappear. Everything that you have pointed out is absolutely Colin's & my conviction as well. As a village Nurse in Manihiki 1990-1993 I got to use Toa bark for my children & other children's oral thrush which healed the problem as there was no western medicine. Used a creeping weed for a boil poultice., used ngangie on the papa on the reef for heavy bleeding, cream from the tree of life (coconut tree ) for severe burns as well as its young roots crushed to stop bleeding and the list goes on. We should consider perhaps adding the cutting of old & tupuna trees to the Environment Act or Crimes bill that is in the making which the trees to be preserved are listed & approval by a body is to be granted before they can be destroyed for safety reasons instead of beautification that does the opposite. I was very sad & upset on return to Parliament one day to find several coconut trees were cut down without any consultation & I can understand your sentiments of the special type & I missed the shade & beauty that disappeared as well. On our family yard in Auck we have a pohutukawa, kowhai trees& next yard are rimu, kauri & totara which are NZ natives that are protected and that is what I think we need to do in the Cook Islands so our future generations can marvel over.

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