History & Culture
There are Pūriri alive today that were standing well before the first humans set foot in New Zealand. There are some that may even be older than the most ancient Kauri trees, as they have a remarkable stubbornness when it comes to survival. Pūriri can be found uprooted, grazed by stock, cut in half, mostly rotten and still producing new shoots.
The tree quickly gained the respect of Māori living in northern New Zealand where it naturally occurs. To many tribes the tree was deeply sacred and associated with mourning and burial of the dead; a connection that still lives on in some places today. After the death of a chief or person of high mana, the body would be adorned with a coronet of pūriri leaves, and washed with an infusion of the leaves and water. After being left to decompose, a ritual scraping ceremony was performed and the bones entombed in the hollow of a Pūriri.
Taketakerau – a giant burial tree in Ōpōtiki, is estimated to be around 2000 years old and served as an important burial site for the local Bay of Plenty tribes. The tree was considered highly sacred and interference with it was a religious offence punishable by death. During the early phase of European settlement a storm damaged the tree and exhumed the bones, forcing the local tribes to remove them for reburial.
Despite this deep association with death, The Bay of Islands Māori also considered Pūriri a symbol of joy at being alive. “Ka kata ngā pūriri ō taiamai,” is an ancient proverb used as a greeting, congratulation or when honouring a guest. Translated its meaning is: “the puriri trees of the bay of islands are laughing with joy.” It represented a delight and happiness that nature was content and all was well with the world.
Pūriri is generally associated with fertile or volcanic soil, which was highly sought after by Europeans for pasture and cropland. As a result, it was extensively milled, cleared and burned. Today, the image of a lonely gnarled Pūriri in the middle of a paddock has become iconic of the species. However this may be something of an artefact of selective logging. Because only the best and straightest trees were logged, many of the ones that remain today are those that were passed over for being particularly twisted and distorted.
The wood of Pūriri is perhaps the strongest wood in New Zealand, particularly heavy, dense and also resistant to rot. Though it could be difficult to work with, it was an incredibly useful and durable timber source, being described as the New Zealand equivalent of Teak or Mahogany. It was used by early colonists for buildings, framings, bridges, ship, railway sleepers, firewood, foundation blocks, poles, fence-posts, gears and engine bearings. The wood used for fence-posts was so tough that staples to attach fencing wire struggled to penetrate the wood and a special “Pūriri staple” had to be developed. There are still Pūriri fenceposts today that are nearly 100 years old and in Northland there are water pumps that still run on Pūriri bearings.
Infusions of the leaves were used by Māori for back ache, joint pain, ulcers, sore throats, sprains, and to wash dead bodies for preservation. The Māori used Pūriri timber for garden tools, weapons, defensive forts and palisades. It has been said that when these palisade walls were fired upon, shotgun shells would ricochet off the dense wood rather than lodge within it. It was the preferred material to construct eel traps with, as it was one of the only native timbers that would sink.
Pūriri is one of the most commonly used trees in restoration planting as it produces flowers and fruit all year round. It is a key supplier of food to the Kererū, a very important species that is the principal seed disperser for a number of New Zealand’s large-fruited plants. It is also serves as the main home for New Zealand’s largest moth – the Pūriri Moth. The young caterpillar burrows into the trunk and lives off the trees sap. After around 7 years it pupates into a moth and flies off to find a mate.