In the traditional Māori world view, plants and animals were rich in meaning. The diverse heights, girths and other features of trees suggested the variety of human dimensions. Children were named after trees, plants and birds, and people’s characters were likened to features of the forest.
Independence and love
The tī kōuka (cabbage tree, Cordyline australis), which often grows alone, symbolises stoic independence. It was sometimes called tī-tahi – the lone cabbage tree.
The raukawa (Pseudopanax edgerleyi) evokes romantic love – it was used to make perfume for the East Coast ancestor Māhinaarangi’s meetings with her lover Tūrongo. They named their child (the ancestor of the Ngāti Raukawa tribe) after the plant.
Whānau – family
Harakeke (flax, Phormium tenax) symbolises the family and the cycle of life. Similarly, the flax bush represents the family – the new leaf at its centre is the child, and larger leaves on the outside are older relatives.
Māheuheu (weeds) symbolise abandoned places. They were sometimes deliberately cultivated to hide sacred sites, giving the impression that they had been abandoned.
The maire (Nestegis cunninghamii) is a hardwood, and represents strength. A saying about the maire asks where to find the most important part of a speech:
Kei whea te maire o ngā kōrero?
Where is the maire of the speechmaking?
A mother often sang this song while nursing a child.
Taku hei piripiri
Taku hei mokimoki
Taku hei tāwhiri
Taku kati taramea 1
My little neck-satchel of sweet-scented moss
My little neck-satchel of fragrant fern
My little neck-satchel of aromatic gum
My sweet-smelling neck-locket of speargrass.
All these plants were admired for their scents. Their leaves, or gum in the case of the tāwhiri, were worn in satchels around the neck.
Symbolism in oratory
Trees and plants came to represent poetic and symbolic ideas, expressed in classical oratory and storytelling. In the 19th century, Europeans (and perhaps uneducated Māori) sometimes struggled to understand orations despite speaking the Māori language, because they did not know the symbolism.
A saying by King Tāwhiao
A saying from Tāwhiao, the second Māori king, used native plants as symbols:
Māku anō e hanga tōku whare
Ko tōna tāhuhu, he hīnau.
Ōna pou he māhoe, he patatē
Me whakatupu ki te hua o te rengarenga,
me whakapakari ki te hua o te kawariki. 2
I will build my house
Its ridge pole will be made of hīnau
Its posts will be made of māhoe (whiteywood) and patatē (seven-finger)
Those who inhabit that house shall be raised on rengarenga (rock lily)
and nurtured on kawariki.
His tongi (saying) has been interpreted to mean that the native plants used to build the house and feed its inhabitants represent Māori self-sufficiency.