*Puka [Proto Polynesian]


A name applied generically to a select number of species having in common a littoral or damp habitat and relatively large leaves, including, among others: Meryta sinclairii "Puka" (Araliaceae), and Griselinia lucida "Puka, Akapuka" (Griseliniaceae).


Puka is the primary name for the two species mentioned above. Alternative names are noted in the entries for the various species sharing the designation "Puka" in the commentaries on individual species: Griselinia lucida, Syzygium maire, and Muehlenbeckia australis . Puka is also an alternative name for the introduced wild cabbage, Brassica oleracea, Cruciferae, also known as nanī, rearea, hāria, nīko and paea.

From PROTO EASTERN OCEANIC *buka, "Large littoral trees, including Pisonia species (Nyctagynaceae), and Gyrocarpus americanus (Hernandiaceae) ",
through PROTO CENTRAL PACIFIC *buka, As for Proto Eastern Oceanic, but expanded to include Hernandia nymphaefolia (Hernandiacae).
to PROTO POLYNESIAN *puka, "A general term (taxon) for large littoral trees, notably including Pisonia grandis (Nyctagynaceae), along with Hernandia nymphaefolia and Gyrocarpus americanus (Hernandiaceae)".

Meryta sinclairii - Puka
Great Island, Hen & Chickens
(Photo (c) Peter de Lange, NZPCN)
Griselinia lucida - Akapuka
(Photo (c) Jeremy Rolfe, NZPCN!)

Tongan: Puko (Pisonia grandis, Nyctagynaceae and Hernandia nymphaefolia, "Lantern tree", Hernandiaceae).
Niuean: Puka tea (Pisonia grandis, Nyctagynaceae).
Samoan: Pu'a (Hernandia nymphaefolia, "Chinese lantern tree", Hernandiaceae).
Tikopia: Puka (Hernandia nymphaefolia, "Lantern tree", Hernandiaceae).
Marquesan: Puka (Hernandia nukuhivensis, Hernandiaceae).
Tahitian: Puka (Passiflora foetida "love-in-a-mist", Passifloraceae).
Tuamotuan: Puka (Pisonia grandis, Nyctagynaceae).
Rarotongan: Puka (Hernandia nymphaefolia "Chinese lantern tree ", Hernandiaceae; Pisonia grandis [a.k.a Puka tea], Nyctaginaceae).

Pukapuka (Reduplicated form of Puka): Brachyglottis repanda "Rangiora", Asteraceae -- see below for further information about this tree.
Kāpuka (Griselinia littoralis, "Kāpuka", Griseliniaceae);
Pukatea (Puka + tea "white" Species name, "Common name", Familyaceae) [also cognates in Niuean, Rarotongan and Tuamotuan];
Akapuka (Aka "vine" + Puka) Griselinia lucida, "Puka, akapuka", Griseliniaceae - see below.

After its arrival in Aotearoa this word seems to have retained its historical status as a vaguely generic term applied mainly to selected trees with large, glossy leaves growing in littoral or damp environments, in lieu of or in addition to another, more sharply focused name. The inflorescences of most species are also rather similar in form. It also appears among the varied names assigned to the wild cabbage, Brassica oleracea, after this large-leaved vegetable was introduced in the Nineteenth Century.

TCA 2011The Puka pa excellence (it has no alternative name, although the adjective "nui" (large) is sometimes added, to distinguish it from its homophonous namesakes), is Meryta sinclairii, a strikingly handsome Araliad with flat, glossy green leaves as large as 50 cm long by 20 cm wide. The leaves have conspicuous raised veins and midrib. The puka (or puka nui) is native to the Three Kings islands and the Hen and Chickens islands off the Northland coast, but is now widely cultivated in warmer parts of the country. It is, however, very sensitive to frost, especially when young. For several years we managed to provide sufficient protection for a tree planted in Te Māra Reo by Grover and Mari Stock (see photo on left), permaculturalists living in California who visited the garden in 2011, but unfortunately a few years later, when it seemed the tree was well-established, we had a series of frosts in rapid succession and the puka, along with what had been a strongly-growing mamaku, did not survive the onslaught.

There are separate male and female trees. The small pale green flowers are rich in nectar, and extremely attractive to a wide range of insects. The trees generally flower in autumn and the fruit ripen in summer. The fruit, about 1 cm long, are green and fleshy as they begin to develop, then turning purple as they ripen and finally glossy black. The are borne in large bunches at the tips of the branchlets. The mature puka reach a height of around 8 metres, and have a spreading habit. Provided they are not exposed to heavy or repeated frosts, the trees will grow happily in the open.

The Puka also known as Akapuka, Griselinia lucida, also has large (up to 18 cm by 12 cm) glossy-green leaves with prominent veins and midrib. It is also sensitive to frost, and is essentially a forest tree, in the wild generally starting life as an epiphyte, often quite high up on the host tree. It sends its roots down and around the trunk of its host until it finds the ground, but simply uses its host as a perch, rather than trying to strangle and replace it. It can also grow on the ground, but in the wild this will generally be perched on a rock rather than directly in the soil. It has a shrubby habit, and can grow to around 8 metres high. When perched on trees, it generally shelters under its hosts canopy rather that overshadowing it. The flowers are small and pale-green, with separate male and female flowers, which may be borne on separate trees. Only the male flowers have petals. Like the puka nui, its fruit turn purple and then black as they ripen; they are generally a little less than 1 cm long, and are borne in clusters, ripening in late Autumn. The tree is naturally distributed in forests throughout the North Island, and is found also in the north and west of the South Island.

Puka in the form of the tree Syzygium maire, "Swamp maire", is better known under the name of Maire tawake; it is a denizen of the swamps, and in very damp conditions will develop spongy breathing roots (pneumatophores) which enable it to breathe. It grows to about 15 m. high and has glossy leaves which are much smaller (4 or 5 cm by a little over 1 cm) than those of the puka nui and akapuka. It occurs naturally in North Island forests, and in the Nelson and Marlborough regions at the northern tip of the South Island. There is further information about this tree in the Maire tawake section on the page for Oriwa.

Puka as a vine: finally, in this lineup of Puka, is the vine Muehlenbeckia australis, the large-leaved Muehlenbeckia, which also seems to have puka as its primary name, although it may also be referred to by the generic term for several species of creeping plant, pōhuehue. According to Alan Clarke (The Great Sacred Forest of Tāne) the flowers of the puka and related species of Muelhenbeckia (pōhuehue) are sweet and juicy and were a favourite snack for maori children (these and the similarly sweet berries are also mentioned by Andrew Crowe in his Field Guide to Native Edible Plants; they are ready to eat in summer and early autumn). It is a rambling many-branched climber, stretching up to 10 m in length, with the main stem up to 10 cm in diameter. The heart-shaped dark-green leaves may be up to an inch long. This vine found throughout New Zealand, in lowland forests and near the coast.

 Pukapuka (Brachyglottis repanda, Asteraceae)

This large-leaved shrub is generally known as Rangiora. Its aliases include, besides pukapuka, kōuaha, pukariao, raurākau, raurēkau, whārangi and whārangi-tawhito. The milky-white undersides of its leaves look like the pages of a book (giving an indigenous ambience to the use of the homophonous word pukapuka to translate the English "book"); similarly the name whārangi, reflecting the "spread-out" nature of the leaf, has also come to be used for sheets of paper or pages of a book.

References and further reading: Further information about the trees, and excellent illustrations, may be found in John Dawson and Rob Lucas's New Zealand's Native Trees and J.T. Salmon's The Native Trees of New Zealand. Publication details of these and the other works mentioned above will be found in the bibliography. Profiles of all these plants and further references will also be found on the NZPCN website

Photographs: Grateful thanks to Jeremy Rolfe, Wayne Bennett and Peter de Lange of the NZ Plant Conservation Network for permission to use some of their photographs, as noted in the captions. The others are by RB, Te Māra Reo.

Meryta sinclaitii - Puka
Oriental Bay, Wellington. Note developing inflorescence.
Meryta sinclairii - Puka
(Te Māra Reo)
Sysygium maire - Puka, Maire tawake
(Photo (c) Wayne Bennett, NZPCN)
Syzygium maire - Puka, Maire tawake
Roots with pneumataphores
(Photo (c) Wayne Bennett, NZPCN)
Muehlenbeckia australis - Puka
Photo (c) Jeremy Rolfe, NZPCN)
Brachyglottis repanda - Pukapuka, Rangiora
(Te Māra Reo!)

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