Volume 42 1933 > Volume 42, No. 168 > Notes on the vegetation on Penrhyn and Manihiki Islands, by A. Murray Linton, p 300-307
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TOWARD the end of my survey work on Penrhyn and Manihiki for the Cook Islands Department I received a request for plant specimens from Miss L. M. Cranwell, of the Auckland Institute and Museum. I was able to collect on Manihiki, and a classified list has since been published in the Records of the Auckland Museum. The following notes on the plants and their native uses are the result of observations on both islands.

The vegetation on the islands is very much in its primitive state and consists, at a rough estimate, of about 28 different species of native plants and a considerable number of imported varieties. Coconuts account for about ninety per cent. of the total vegetation and pandanus and the various timber trees for the remainder.

Cultivation, as the term is understood in New Zealand, is unknown among the natives and the only work carried out in this direction has been the introduction of various fruit trees and flowering shrubs. As far as both Penrhyn and Manihiki are concerned there is no soil that would support vegetation other than native. One trader on Penrhyn who had a small vegetable garden informed me that it had cost him something like 10/- per cubic foot, so that it was not very great in extent. Soil for such purposes as growing vegetables is carried from Rarotonga by trading schooner.

Breadfruit trees imported from Rarotonga do fairly well if given a little soil, to start off, and then carefully tended and supplied with leaf-mould, etc. Bananas, also, carried from Rarotonga and Samoa, grow indifferently while pawpaws probably give a better return than any other fruit for the trouble of establishing them.

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Vegetables in the imported gardens thrive if protected from the sun, but the kumara, though the tops grow strongly and are used by the natives as a vegetable, fails to produce any tubers. Mangoes have recently been tried on the islands, but, though growing strongly, have produced no fruit. Though I saw but one fig tree on the islands, it was doing well, and bearing fruit of excellent quality. Oranges and lemons for some reasons do not grow at all well. Tomatoes grow fairly well if sheltered from the sun and well manured. A certain amount of guano is available on most of the islands but as it prevents the coconuts from growing the natives consider that it has no value as a plant-food and so do not use it. While on the subject of guano it may be as well to mention the fact that large colonies of birds inhabit certain small islands or motus on the atoll. When these birds take possession of a motu the increasing supply of guano gradually overcomes the coconuts and in a few years they disappear entirely, being replaced by such trees as puka, fano, and taumanu.

Native flowering trees are few in Penrhyn and Manihiki, but imported varieties are fairly numerous. These are chiefly confined to the various kinds of hibiscus, bougainvillea, native coffee plant; and in some places flowers are to be seen such as one sees in the average New Zealand garden—stocks, cosmos, pansies, peonies—even roses may be seen from time to time.

As mentioned, the plants referred to in the following notes were collected on Manihiki and are almost the same as those on Penrhyn, though on the latter island there is now very little available timber—tou, fano, tamanu, nenu are almost if not quite extinct.

1. Tou—Cordia subcordata Lam.

By far the most important and the most serviceable wood is tou, which is a lasting and easily-worked wood of good strength and medium hardness. Used in boats and for building purposes it will last for more than fifty years, and by reason of its great usefulness it has been much used in the past and is fairly scarce. Te Rangi Hiroa states that from it war-clubs (koare) are made. - 302 Trees average 50 feet to 80 feet high and 1 foot 6 inches to 2 feet in diameter.

2. Fano—Guettarda speciosa L.

Next in order of usefulness as a timber is fano which like tou is now becoming fairly scarce. It is a little harder than tou and slightly more brittle, but is a good and lasting timber. The trees vary considerably in size, but an average log would be about fifteen inches thick and the trees are approximately sixty feet high. Both tou and fano are to be found in the larger motus and generally occupy the interior of the islands. The leaves of the fano, which sometimes reach a length of fifteen inches and a proportionate width, are used by the natives as plates.

3. Tamanu—Calophyllum Inophyllum L.

This wood is, as far as I know, not now to be obtained on Penrhyn. It is a heavy hard wood and is not much used for building purposes. It is generally used by the natives when in the young state for handles for fishing nets, spears, and the like. It has great strength and seldom breaks under strain. It is confined more or less to the interior of the islands and grows in trees up to about a foot in thickness and fifty feet in height.

4. Nenu—Morinda citrifolia L.

As a timber this wood is not much used. It appears to have poor lasting qualities and the only use the natives had for it was as a medicine. The leaves are used much the same way as a cabbage-leaf is sometimes used in this country, i.e., applied to an aching part and “ironed” on with a hot stone. The root is also used as a poultice. Torn up from the ground the bark is scraped from the root, mashed up and applied to wounds, etc. The distribution of the tree is fairly general in the interior of the islands.

5. Oronga—Pipturus velutinus Wedd.

As far as I could gather, this tree is confined to one or two motus on Manihiki. It is used by the natives to manufacture fishing-lines. The bark is scraped or rather peeled from the tree and the fibre is then removed and - 303 twisted into fishing-lines and ropes. The trees do not attain a very great height, the specimens that I observed being little more than 15 or 20 feet high.

6. Tauhunu—Tournefortia argentea L.f.

This tree, which attains a maximum height of about 20 feet, is confined to the edges of the islands bordering on the lagoons and the open sea. It is used by the natives for firewood and for making boat-knees and ribs. The tree is very crooked in its growth and when boat-ribs or knees are required the native takes a pattern and selects a tree with the necessary curve in the trunk. In this way he can cut his boat with primitive tools and a minimum of labour.

7. Ngangae 1 (ironwood)—Pemphis acidula Forst.

This wood is very much used as firewood and in fact is one of the most useful woods on the islands. Its distribution is fairly general in open and exposed places and it appears to be extremely hardy, taking root where all other varieties appear to succumb to exposure or lack of soil. By reason of its weight and extreme hardness it was in former years of great value for the manufacture of clubs, spears, and other weapons of offence. Nowadays it is used for boat-keels and knees, coconut-huskers, and pounders for washing clothes. The trees seldom reach a height of twenty feet and are crooked and exceptionally scrubby. The wood is quite as hard or even harder than any of our New Zealand woods such as black maire or rata. The tree has a small white flower and a small thick leaf about half an inch long and ¼ inch wide.

8. Miro—Thespesia populnea Soland.

There is some doubt among the natives as to whether this wood is native or whether it was introduced by the earlier traders or missionaries. It grows to a height of about sixty feet and is chiefly used for making canoes.

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9. Ngahu—Scaevola frutescens (Mill.) Krause (S. Koenigii Vahl.).

This occurs in several diverse growth-forms, but all appear to belong to one species. In some cases it is scandent, in others it grows like an ordinary shrub to a height of ten feet. Among the natives this was a very important shrub. The bark when scraped off was used to make oakum for caulking canoes. The plant is fairly general in its distribution, but grows chiefly along the edges of the lagoon.

10. Puka—Pisonia inermis Forst.

This is about the most persistent tree I have ever known and at the same time the softest wood. A branch six inches thick will scarcely bear the weight of a man. If a tree be felled the stump will immediately commence to grow again and the fallen trunk will take root at every point where it touches the ground. Twigs broken off and thrown down will also take root. The chief use of the tree is as a green food for pigs. The wood is so soft that pigs will demolish the entire branch up to three inches thick as well as the leaves which they appear to relish. In distribution the tree is very general and reaches a height of about 80 feet and a diameter of about 3 feet.

11. Fara—Pandanus tectorius Sol. var. (P. odoratissimus L.f.)

Next after the coconut this is the most useful tree in the islands. The wood which is exceptionally hard is used for the framework of houses, and the root is split up to make lathes for the “venetian-blinds” of which the walls are made. The leaf makes a much more secure and durable roof than the coconut. The fruit is scraped for its sweet syrup which is used for cooking, and the nut is also eaten. The leaves are dried in the sun and used to make mats, hats, fans, materials for clothing, and boat-sails; in fact the uses to which the natives put the trees are almost innumerable.

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(On the lower, vestiges of early cultures in the form of walls or regularly-placed squared stones seeming to mark some old marae.)

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12. Coconut—Cocos nucifera L.

It is solely because of the coconut that the islands are habitable. In the present periods of depression the natives live almost entirely on coconut and fish, occasionally eked out with a little flour, but more often unadulterated. The wood of the coconut is used for all manner of building purposes as well as for the simple furnishings found in the native houses. Canoes, sailing-boats, and paddles are also made from the wood; house-roofs from the foliage or nikau as the natives call it, and also mats for sleeping purposes. The leaf of the young nikau is prepared and the fibre removed for making hats, mats, baskets, fans, clothing-materials, and sails. The coarse fibre from the central rib of the nikau is used for making rough ropes, while for finer work such as boat-tackle the sinnet or fibre from the coconut-husk is used. The soft pithy centre at the crown of the foliage is used as a vegetable in much the same way as the New Zealand Maori prepares the nikau. The water from the green nut is almost the only beverage on the island, and from the matured nut is obtained the copra which the natives trade for a few simple tools and, occasionally, clothes.

The trading value of copra during my stay in the islands was less than 50/- per ton of 4, 500 nuts. Much of the land was then under raui (ra'ui, Maori rahui)—a system originally instituted to prevent the theft of coconuts, at a time when they were about six times as high in value. Its continuance in Manihiki and Rakahonga imposed a burden on the people. They had no money to buy European food and they were prohibited from taking freely what nature had provided on the islands. Oil is also obtained from the matured nut, and is used for lubrication, illumination, and medicinal purposes. In all, as I have said, the coconut more than anything else makes life possible on the islands.

In some places the ownership of a single coconut-tree has been the cause of a dispute of many years standing. If the tree in question dies another is planted in its place so that the dispute may continue.

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13. Purau—? Hibiscus tiliaceus L.

This is a soft light wood and is used by the natives for canoe-outriggers and spear-handles where lightness is of paramount importance. The purau appears to be a native of most of the islands of the Pacific. Unfortunately no specimens were secured. Miss L. M. Cranwell suggests that it is Hibiscus tiliaceus L.

In reference to the smaller shrubs and weeds, I should like to point out that the native word naunau refers to almost any weed or grass not otherwise identified by the natives. Of these weeds a few are edible:

14. Naunau-kawa—Lepidium piscidium Forst.

This weed is eaten by the natives as a green food either raw or boiled. In its native state it tastes and smells very much like water-cress. It grows in small bushy plants about 18 inches high. Its distribution is general.

15. Katuri—? Boerhaavia.

A small creeper-like plant; this is used by the natives cooked as a vegetable. It runs along the ground and spreads quickly. It may be found almost anywhere on the islands.

The remainder of the plants grouped under the heading naunau are fairly general throughout the island. As far as I could ascertain there were no particular uses to which the natives put any of these plants. They are: (16) Fleurya interrupta Gand.; (17) Triumfetta procumbens Forst.; (18) Lepturus repens R.Br.; (19) Fimbristylis cymosa R.Br. var. subcapitata C. B. Clarke; (20) a species of Calonyction; and (28) Psilotum nudum (L) Griseb., better known in New Zealand under its older name P. triquetrum Sw.

Specimens of moss (rimu) may be collected all over the island. It may be found in any quantity round the roots of almost any coconut-tree, on the ground, and on decaying logs. As far as I could see all the moss was of one kind. It has been identified as Trichosteleum rhinophyllum (C.M.) Jaeg.

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Two distinct types of ferns are found on the island (maire—Polypodium scolopendris Burm., and raukotahu—Asplenium nidus L., the birds-nest fern). Maire grows almost anywhere on the island and generally speaking each frond springs from a separate root.

The fern raukotahu is occasionally used by the natives, when camping out, for making beds. A good-sized specimen would have leaves four feet long and six inches wide. Its distribution is general.

As with their weeds the natives describe all manner of sea-growth, but one, as luna. There do not appear to be many varieties of sea-weed. The “sea-moss” (Bryopsis Harveyana J. Ag.) has a particularly odious habit. During October and November it becomes detached from the rocks where it grows and after floating about the lagoon becomes cast up on the beach. Decomposition sets in, and the stench becomes almost unbearable. This state of affairs lasts for a month or six weeks and then the deposits cease, but I have had few experiences worse than being camped on a foreshore where large quantities of this moss are thrown up and decomposed in a temperature of about 94 degrees in the shade.

The remainder of the plants collected were seaweeds, one being green and lime-secreting, Halimeda incrassata Lam. A third green, Caulerpa cupressoides (Vahl.) C.Ag. var. mamillosa (Mont.) van Bosse, and a handsome brown seaweed, Turbinaria ornata (Turn.) J.Ag., complete my list. The marine growth ngahu does not appear to be a seaweed; it is a sponge-like growth in the lagoon and because of its rough surface is used as a sandpaper for finishing canoes, etc. For this use it is very suitable indeed and as there is a huge quantity of it the supply is plentiful for all needs.


1. Cranwell, L. M., 1933, “Flora of Manihiki,” Records, Auckland Institute Museum, vol. 1, p. 171.

2. Te Rangi Hiroa, 1932, “Ethnology of Manihiki and Rakahanga,” B. P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 99.

1   Spelt ngangie by Te Rangi Hiroa (Dr. P. H. Buck) when he mentions this tree in Manihiki and Rakahanga, p. 16.