Piwakawaka Mini Te Mära Reo ~ The Language Garden

*Fäpuku ~ Häpuku

Ephinephelus spp. (Sea bass and groupers).
The association with plants is found in Mäori and Hawaiian, directly reflecting a Proto Central Eastern form *Häpuku, retaining the meaning of the earlier word and extending it to include an association with tree ferns.


Like the link between the tötara, a forest tree in Aotearoa, and tötara, the puffer fish in Tahiti, along with the bark of the kauri and the skin of the sperm whale, at least three of the New Zealand tree ferns, two with Polynesian heritage names -- the ponga (Cyathea dealbata) and the mamaku (C. medullaris) -- along with the kätote (C. smithii), are similarly linked to a sea creature. In this case it is the häpuku, a species of grouper, which in Aotearoa is the mythical parent of the tree ferns, and in Hawaii shares its name with one of the most conspicuous genera of indigenous tree ferns.

The New Zealand link is recounted in a Ngai Tahu version of the Täwhaki cycle included in Volume 1 of John White's Ancient History of the Mäori (1887), pp. 51-2 in the Maori texts and p. 59 of the English translation. Täwhaki is an important Polynesian culture hero, who through a combination of charm, diplomacy, ingenuity and persistance managed to overcome many formidable phystical, ritual and spiritual obstacles to climb into the heavens. Among his earthly deeds were (in one of the Ngai Tahu accounts) the slaying of some of the family of Te Häpuku (The Grouper), linked in these accounts with cetacians and tree ferns, in revenge for their responsibility for the murder of his father, Hemä. To avoid Täwhaki's wrath:

Some of the offspring of Häpuku fled to the sea, and some to the forest. Those which fled to the sea became whales and other great fish. They were Kewa [Balaena australis, the right whale], Ihupuku [Arctocephalus forsteri, the fur seal], Paikea [another whale species], ... Kekeno, Whakahao and Räpoka [Arctocephalus hookeri, the sea lion], and Upokohue [Gobicephala malaena, blackfish, and Cephalorhynchus hectori, the porpoise]. These were the fish of the sea; and the Mamaku [Cyathea medullaris], Te Ponga [C. dealbata], Kätote [C. smithii] -- these were called the fish of the forest. All these fish and trees were cursed for the death of Täwaki's father. [Cf. J. White, Ancient History, Vol I, p. 59, English text.]

Some other versions of this tradition place the sea-mammals (along with sharks, stingrays, and/or insects) within Te Whänau a Punga (Punga's family). Punga was said to be a child of the sea deity, Tangaroa, and responsible for a variety of dangerous and unattractive creatures. However the version involving Te Häpuku is the one which includes the tree ferns, and is very important for the link it provides between häpuku as fish and häpuku/häpu'u as a tree fern, and thus between the Mäori and Hawaiian associations of this world.

Looking down on the häpu'u ferns, for example in the small craters that they fill in the Volcanos National Park in Hawai'i, and the children of Te Hapuku in the New Zealand forest, it is not hard to see why these ferns should be regarded as the "fish of the forest". Looking at the photographs in the column opposite, one can envisage the young häpu'u and its New Zealand counterpart the ponga as floating in their natural habitat.

Tongan: Fäpuku (Epinephelus merra & similar fish)
Tahitian: Häpu'u (E. fuscuguttatus)
Hawaiian: Hapu'u (Cybotium chamissoi, C. glaucum, C. nealiae & C. menziesii [Dicksoniaceae]); also the fish Epinephelus guernus).
Tuamotuan: Häpuku ("A fish species")
Rarotongan:Äpuku (Epinephelus polypheka [Marbled grouper] & E. tuamotuensis [Reticulated grouper])
Maori: Häpuku (Polyprion oxygeneios [a species of grouper]); Te Häpuku (Personification of the grouper and ancestor of cetacians and certain tree ferns)

Associated Mäori tree names: ponga, mamaku [see text opposite].

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Häpu'u as fish, Hawaii

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Häpu'u as fern [Very young plant of Cibotium menziesii], Hawaii

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Häpuku as fish, Aotearea

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Cyathea dealbata, a child of Te Häpu'u escaped to swim in the forest, Aotearoa

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Häpuku in forest, Halama Farm Trail, Hawai'i

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Te Häpuku's child the mamaku (Cyathea medullaris), Aotearea

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Te Häpuku's child the kätote (Cyathea smithii), Aotearea

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Häpuku (Cibotium sp.) in old crater, Volcano National Park, Hawaii

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Young plant of Häpuku (Cibotium chamissoi), Kate Lynch's Nursery, O'ahu, Hawai'i

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Koru of mamaku (Cyathea medullaris), Te Mära Reo, Aotearea

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Koru of häpu'u 'i'i (Cibotium menziesii), Hawai'i

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Koru of häpu'u pulu (Cibotium glaucum), Hawai'i

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Koru of häpu'u (Cibotium chamissoi), Hawai'i

Further information about Cyathea medullaris and C. dealbata can be found on the linked pages for mamaku and ponga respectively. There is some very basic information about Cyathea smithii in the NZPCN database. This latter tree fern grows best in damp, sheltered environments in the forest, and is found throughout New Zealand. It can reach heights of up to 7 or 8 metres in favourable environments. There is information about the Cibotium species in Daniel Palmers's Hawaiian Ferns and Kathy Valier's Ferns of Hawaii (see bibliography); the University of Hawaii's School of Tropical Agriculture also has an information bulletin about the häpu'u tree ferns available for download.
Photographs: The fish photographs came from the EOL (hapu'u) and Blue Ocean (hapuku) web sites respectively. The photo of Cyathea dealbata is from the NZ Depatrment of Conservation; C. medullaris is by John Braggins on the NZPCN site; and C. smithii is from the Te Papa database. The photograph of the Cibotium menziesii koru (copyright) is by Dr Gerry Carr (ex University of Hawaii) and used here with his kind permission. The other photographs (in Hawaii and Aotearoa) are by R.B.

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Te Mära Reo, c/o Benton Family Trust, "Tumanako", RD 1, Taupiri, Waikato 3791, Aotearoa / New Zealand
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