Story: Te ngahere – forest lore

Page 2. The great trees

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The posts of heaven

The great trees of Tāne, god of the forest, were called Ngā Tokotoko-o-te-rangi (the posts that hold the heavens aloft) because they held Ranginui (the sky father) above Papatūānuku (the earth mother).


Tōtara had pride of place among the tall trees. Found throughout New Zealand and growing up to 40 metres high, their strong, straight trunks were ideal for building waka taua (war canoes). The bark was used to make roofs, splints for broken limbs, and food and water containers called pātua or papa tōtara.

The saying ‘kua hinga te tōtara’ (a tōtara has fallen) described the death of an important person or chief.


Kauri reaches 30–60 metres tall, has a massive girth, and can live as long as 2,000 years. Tāne Mahuta in Waipoua Forest is the largest living specimen. Kauri grows naturally in the north of the North Island, its southern limit crossing the country from Raglan harbour, through Hamilton to just south of Tauranga. The timber was ideal for canoe hulls. The replica double-hulled canoe Te Aurere, made by Hekenukumai Busby of Muriwhenua, has kauri hulls.


Kauri gum was called kāpia. Older gum was used as an accelerant for fires and a fuel for torches. Gum from kauri, tarata and kōhūhū was chewed. The stalk of the pūhā plant was cut to release juice. This hardened and was rolled into a ball, to be chewed like gum.


Beech trees were known as tawhai or tawai. They grew mainly on the Volcanic Plateau and along the mountain chains of the North and South islands. Three varieties were recognised: tawhai (silver beech), tawhairauriki (black beech and mountain beech) and tawhairaunui (red beech and hard beech).

Kiore (Pacific rats) lived in beech forest and became abundant when beech seeds were plentiful. A name for kiore in Whanganui was kiore tawai (beech rat). Kiore were a favourite food of Māori.

Making fire

The demigod Māui, wanting to discover the secret of fire, visited the goddess Mahuika. She gave him one of her fingernails, which contained the fire. To trick her, Māui deliberately put out the flame and returned for another fingernail. He repeated this until Mahuika, realising she had been duped, cast the last nail down and set the underworld alight. Fire became implanted in kaikōmako, rimu and tōtara. Since then, fire has been made by rubbing sticks from these trees in grooves of māhoe or patatē wood.


Rimu had a number of uses. The red cap that holds the seed is edible. The inner bark and leaves were pulped and applied to burns and other wounds. The resinous heartwood was split into slivers and tied in bundles for torches.


New Zealand’s tallest tree, kahikatea, grows up to 60 metres. It bears edible berries, known as koroī.

Mataī and miro

Mataī and miro grow to 25 metres high. Miro produce fruit all year round, and were a favourite of kūkupa or kererū (New Zealand pigeons) and kākā (brown parrots) in autumn and winter. Snares were set to catch the birds.

Mānuka and kānuka

Mānuka and kānuka were versatile. Their bark provided a waterproof layer for roofs. Poles were used as battens and rafters, and for spears or paddle shafts. The leaves were used to scent hair oil, and flexible saplings and new branches were made into snares and traps.

How to cite this page:

Rāwiri Taonui, 'Te ngahere – forest lore - The great trees', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 24 Sep 2007