*Futu [Proto-Polynesian, from Proto-Austronesian *Butun]; *Pōfutukawa [Proto-Rarotongan-Maori (*pō- + *futu + *kawa)]

Hutukawa, Pōhutukawa

Metrosideros excelsa (Myrtaceae)

Alternative name: kahika, from Proto-Polynesian *Kafika

From Proto Polynesian *Futu Barringtonia asiatica (Lychthidaceae); through
Proto Rarotongan/Māori: *Pōfutukawa A seaside tree

Pohtutkawa Blossom>
Pōhutukawa blooms

Pōhutukawa canopy, looking skyward

Tongan, Niuean, Samoan: futu (Barringtonia asiatica, Lychthidaceae)
Tahitian, Marquesan, Rarotongan: hutu (Barringtonia asiatica, Lychthidaceae)
Rarotongan: pōhutukava (Sophora tomentosa & Scaevola sericea)

hutu (Ascarina lucida, Chloranthaceae)
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. The name pōhutukawa was also given to a variety of kūmara, but the reasons for this are unknown.


The words "hutukawa" and "pōhutukawa" both incorporate the ancient word-root *butun, carried into Proto-Polynesian as *futu, referring to the pan-tropical tree Barringtonia asiatica. The modifier kawa "bitter", and the derivative prefix pō- (signifying something like the English suffix -ish) indicate that the name was applied to indicate a tree reminiscent of the Barringtonia, but not identical to it. The pōhutukawa is indeed reminiscent of the Barringtonia, considerably more obviously so than the trees that bear the cognate name, pō'utukava, in Rarotonga -- but there are other links between the Rarotongan and New Zealand plants. See the pages for *futu and *pōfutukava (links at the top of this page) for further information about these differences and similarities.

Location in the Language Garden
The pōhutukawa in Poetry and Proverbs


PohutukawaThe pōhutukawa is a large, wide-spreading tree, growing to about 20 metres in height in favourable conditions, but may be only a metre of two tall when clinging to rocks exposed to sea-spray. It is the pre-eminent coast-line tree of the warmer parts of Te Ika a Maui (the North Island), although in many places its viability has been jeopardized by the depredations of possums and developers. It is one of the first plants to colonize bare volcanic rocks, and, not surprisingly therefore, is also found inland around some of the lakes of the volcanic plateau. Like the kauri, with which it shares iconic status as a national symbol, the pōhutukawa has been planted extensively and successfully well outside its natural range.

The tiny, almost microscopic seeds of the pōhutukawa are easily carried huge distances by wind, and molecular studies indicate that all the plants of the genus Metrosideros, now found in New Caledonia, the Bonin Islands, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, Hawaii and most of the rest of Eastern Polynesia, all can be traced back to an ancestor in Aotearoa.


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Location in the Language Garden
The Pōhutukawa in Poetry and Proverbs

Location in the Language Garden

There are pōhutukawas at several points in the language garden - one along the road boundary on the northern side of the gate (NE-1), another (which provided the illustration of the blossoms) in Area SE 31, inter alia.


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Location in the Language Garden
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The Pōhutukawa in Poetry and Proverbs

The Pōhutukawa in Poetry and Proverbs

The pōhutukawa is an iconic tree for most citizens of Aotearoa/New Zealand -- its crimson blossoms herald the warmth of summer, and its strength and tenacity also symbolize widely-held conceptions of core national values. Although there are no direct references to the pōhutukawa in either the poems collected in Ngā Mōteatea or the proverbs in Nga Pēpeha a ngā Tīpuna, at least one of the sayings in the latter collection refers back to significance of the pōhutukawa to some of its first explorers -- one of whom, sighting the brilliance of the pōhutakawa blossoms festooning the trees along the shoreline near what is now the town of Opotiki, threw his sacred chaplet of scarlet amokura tail feathers overboard, saying he would replace it with "te kura ki uta" -- the chaplet on the shore. That was not the end of the matter, of course, and this is hinted at in the proverb collected by Mead and Grove:

Kia mau ki te kura whero, kei mau koe ki te kura tāwhiwhi kei waiho koe hei whakamōmona mō te whenua tangata
Hold fast to the valued treasure not to the illusory treasure, lest you be left as fertilizer for the human land.
[Mead & Grove 1313, p.215]

There is perhaps also a hint of this in the poet Allen Curnow's evocation of the pōhutukawa, five centuries after the sighting of "Te kura ki uta", in his poem "Spectacular blossom":

.... It is an ageless wind
That loves with knives, it knows our need, it flows
Justly, simply as water greets the blood
And woody tumours burst in scarlet spray.
An old man's blood spills bright as a girl's
On beaches where the knees of light crash down.
These dying ejaculate their bloom.
[A. Curnow, "Spectacular Blossom", in I. Wedde & Harvey McQueen, The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1995), pp.200-201]

One of the most compelling plays by a New Zealand author, Bruce Mason's The Pohutukawa Tree uses an ancient pōhutukawa and a bitter argument about its fate as a symbol of the struggle between tradition and modernity. The poet Lauris Edmond also wrote explicitly about the Pōhutukawa, in a poem beginning:

Red; blood red. Crimson wreaths upon
the branches' royal architraves; stained-
glass sun, sharp against the harbour.

and ending:

Outside there is no cold astringent winter air

but railway platforms, risky highways, fake
affection's sour taste in the heart; the trees.
Needles of blood are falling through the rain.
[L. Edmond, "Pohutukawa", Selected Poems 1975-1994 (Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 1994), pp.180-1]

More may be added to this section later, but meanwhile there is a comprehensive account of the botany and practical and symbolic significance, ancient and contemporary, of the pōhutukawa in Philip Simpson's book -- see the "Further Readings" section at the bottom of this page.

Back to:
Location in the Language Garden
The Pōhutukawa in Poetry and Proverbs

References and further reading: For an authoritative and comprehensive account of the pōhutukawa, replete with magnificent illustrations, see Philip Simpson's Pohutukawa and Rata - NZ's Iron-hearted Trees (Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2005).


Photographs: The photo of the young pohutukawa in flower at Te Māra Reo was taken by Richard Benton; the others, of mature pōhutukawas along the shoreline at Devonport, were taken by James Benton. There are several excellent photographs of the flower of the pōhutukawa, showing its structure in detail, on the University of Auckland's website. Several of our trees have now reached an age at which they can flower profusely - the first, planted as a seedling in 1997, was covered with blooms for the first time in 2006/7 (some of these are the flowers in the photo at the top of this page).

Pōhutukawa trunks and branches

Pōhutukawa trunks

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