Story: The New Zealand bush

Page 1. What is the bush?

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The bush: dense native forest

In New Zealand the primary meaning of ‘bush’ – or ‘native bush’ – is the indigenous forest.

Before humans arrived around 1250–1300 CE, 80% of the land was covered with trees. Early Māori cleared the forest in some areas, but when Pākehā arrived in the 19th century, 50% of the country was still native forest.

The forest was evergreen and lush, and consisted of two main types: conifer–broadleaf dominated the North Island, and beech much of the South Island. Under the tallest trees were layers of young trees, tree ferns and shrubs, and lower still were ferns and sedges. Vines and epiphytes thrived, and mosses and liverworts carpeted the ground. The result was a dense tangle – particularly before the introduction of browsing animals such as deer and possums in the 19th century.

The bush was very hard to travel through, and Europeans compared it to tropical vegetation. As early as 1841, people were using the term ‘bush’ as a synonym for jungle. This became the dominant meaning of the word in New Zealand. In 1896 the mountaineer A. P. Harper noted: ‘In New Zealand the forest is always spoken of as “bush” as opposed to lower growth of vegetation, which is called “scrub”.’ 1

Other meanings

The New Zealand usage of ‘bush’ probably comes from the word ‘bosch’, used by Dutch settlers in South Africa for uncultivated country. The word was then taken to Australia, where such areas were often parklike, with scattered eucalyptus and scrub (low-growing or stunted vegetation). So in Australia, ‘the bush’ is the outback, rather than dense forest.

Don’t blame the bush

‘Bush sickness’ is a Kiwi term for a wasting disease that affected grazing stock on the open pumice lands of the North Island – not in the dense bush. It is thought to have been caused by cobalt deficiency in the soil. The original meaning may derive from the fact that the sickness first appeared in clearings in the bush.

On occasion the word was used in this sense in New Zealand too, meaning any area awaiting European settlement. The dictionary of New Zealand English records a quotation from 1875: ‘The Bush in colonial parlance means everywhere out of the towns, the bleak plains of Canterbury and the dreary uplands of Otago destitute of all vegetation save coarse tussock grass … are called the bush, as well as the impenetrable forests of lofty trees’. 2

Bush words

The dictionary of New Zealand English (1999) has 15 pages of information about the word ‘bush’.

Many related words were soon coined, such as:

  • bush-bash – to make one’s way through the forest, rather than on a track
  • bush shirt – a woollen shirt or Swanndri, often worn by forest workers.
  • bush cane – the native vine also known as supplejack.

Other words carry the secondary meaning of bush as anywhere ‘uncivilised’ or outside the towns:

  • bush carpenter – a rough-and-ready builder
  • bush philosopher – a backblocks person who is free with opinions
  • bush telegraph – an informal network by which news is passed on
  • to go bush – escape from your usual haunts.
  1. Arthur P. Harper, Pioneer work in the Alps of New Zealand. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1896, p. 32. › Back
  2. Quoted in H. W. Orsman, The dictionary of New Zealand English. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 108. › Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'The New Zealand bush - What is the bush?', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 11 December 2023)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 24 Sep 2007