Piwakawaka Mini Te Mära Reo ~ The Language Garden
Thespesia polulnea

The word “miro” is of Eastern Oceanic origin, that is, it was first used, as far as we can tell, in the form *milo, by those Austronesian explorers who had left the New Guinea area to explore the islands that lay beyond: the Southeast Solomons, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Micronesia, Fiji and Polynesia. It referred primarily to a particular tropical tree, Thespesia populnea, a relative of the hibiscus, and replaced an earlier word for this plant, *banaRo, still used (in its varied inherited forms) in many of the other parts of the Austronesian world, including the Philippines. There are special qualities to this tree, however, which undoubtedly were remembered by the early Polynesian explorers, and which account for its name being used for a superficially very different tree in Aotearoa.

Although the particular tree referred to by the word *milo (and still called milo in Hawaii, Samoa, and Tonga and miro in Tahiti, the Tuamotos and Rarotonga) was certainly the rosewood (Thespesia populnea), there was probably more to the word than that. In Easter Island, the word miro is used for timber or ornamental trees – trees whose fruit is not eaten by people – and in New Zealand it refers to a native podocarp, Prumnopitys ferruginea. The elaborated form of the word, toromiro, arose after the Polynesians had left Samoa to settle parts of the Pacific still unexplored to the east and south, and in Easter Island refers to Sophora toromiro, a very close relation of our large-leaved kowhai S. tetraptera, in Tahiti to a sacred variety of rosewood, in Rarotonga to an endemic leguminous tree, and in Aotearoa the word is a synonym for miro.

Botanically, the Aotearoan miro and its northern namesakes belong to different divisions of the Plant Kingdom, so they are very distant relatives indeed genetically. Thespesia is a member of the Malvaceae (Mallow family) within the Magnoliophyta (Flowering plants), and Prumnopitys is a member of the Podocarpaceae (Podocarp family) within the Coniferophyta (Conifers). However, they are all linked by the other common properties mentioned above.

Tongan: Milo (T. populnea)
Niuean: Milo (T. populnea)
Samoan: Milo (Thespesia sp.)
Rapanui: Miro (Timber or ornamental trees)
Tahitian: Miro (T. populnea)
Marquesan: Mi'o (T. populnea)
Hawaiian: Milo (T. populnea etc.)
Tuamotuan: Miro (T. populnea)
Rarotongan: Miro (T. populnea)
Maori: Miro (Prumnopitys ferruginea)

Related Word: *toromiro


Thespesia populnea
[Lyon Arboretum, Honolulu]


Although very different superficially and botanically, these milo/miros all have a lot in common: they have very strong, beautifully grained and easily worked wood, visually attractive fruits which are not food for people, and an aesthetically-pleasing form. Miro has always been one of my favourite trees, and when I first saw the Hawaiian milo I wondered why the first Mäori had used this name for an apparently quite different tree when they arrived here. I got my answer reading an old book on Hawaiian plants in one of the arboretums I visited while researching the Hawaiian counterparts of Mäori plant names in October 2007, and then looking again at the milo trees, so admired by many of my Hawaiian friends, that I encountered:

The leaves are beautifully glossy, and the wind moves them in a most graceful way, somewhat like the quivering of the aspen. (Indigenous Flowers of the Hawaiian Islands by Mrs Francis Sinclair, Jr. London: Samson, Low. Morton, Searle & Rivington, 1885, p.10.)

So the old name milo carried far more than a just a reference to a particular species; rather it evoked a number of special qualities that link several quite different trees along the route which the early Polynesian explorers travelled.

In Tahiti, the miro (Thespesia) is a sacred tree -- see the entry for *toromiro. There is some debate as to whether this tree is truly indigenous to Hawaii, or was brought there from Tahiti or the Marquesas, along with taro, aute and other plants by the Polynesian settlers. Like the karaka in New Zealand (which is an indigenous plant), it is associated with human settlements especially around the coasts, which is not surprising considering the esteem in which the wood and the tree itself were held.

Photographs of Thespesia populnea
(taken in Hawaii, Sept. / Oct. 2007)


[Lyon Arboretum, Honolulu]


[University of Hawaii, Honolulu]


[McByde Garden, Kaua'i]




Flower buds


Branches with Fruit

Hue flower

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