Tawa – Beilschimedia tawa

History & Culture

The long willow-like branches of Tawa have stolen the lives of many Kererū in their time. Māori hunters would climb great trees, carrying with them immense Tawa lances – sometimes greater than 10 metres long. Slowly, carefully, they would inch the lances closer and closer to their prey until at the final moment they would the thrust them through the heart of the bird. These spears were prized possessions, crafted over many years and handed down through the generations.  The spear-points were often made with the sharpened thigh bone of slain enemies, or – for the priveleged few – delicately carved out of pounamu.


As well as providing Kererū, Tawa was an incredibly important source of food in its own right. Tawa is in the same family as Avocado – and has a familiar large berry with green flesh and a hard kernel. The soft flesh of the berry can be eaten, but perhaps more important was the kernel which could be boiled, roasted or steamed in hangi. The cooked kernels kept remarkably well and could store for years, making them an incredibly valuable standby food in case of difficult times.  They were a staple food source for iwi such as Tūhoe.

The importance of the food to Māori can be measured by its incorporation into traditional proverbs. It was often said that noisy children resemble tawa fires – “Ko te ahi tawa hai whakarite” – as the kernels would crack, hiss and pop. The ripe flesh of the berry was compared with a coward, while the solid kernel became a symbol of strength and heroism:

He tawa para! He whati kau tana! – The pulp of the tawa berry is easily crushed.
Ka mahi te tawa uho kit e riri – Well done, tawa kernel fighting away.

Although Tawa may have snared the lives of many Kererū – it now depends on them for its own survival. Prior to the arrival of humans in New Zealand, the large Tawa berries would have been eaten and dispersed by a variety of birds such as Moa and Kākāpō. However the arrival of humans and mammals precipitated one of the most catastrophic extinctions of birds the world has seen, with over 40% of bird species driven extinct. Today, Kererū is one of the only surviving birds with a mouth large enough to eat the seeds and spread them around the forest.



Other than spear-making and food, Tawa was often used medicinally as well. A brew from the bark was used to treat stomach aches and colds. Tuhoe would mix this brew with Rimu and Tutu as a decoction for wounds. Tawa was used by European settlers aswell and it proved to be a useful timber tree, with a soft wood that was used to make fences and houses.


Want to learn more about Tawa?
Nga Tipu Whakaoranga; Maori Plant Use Database
New Zealand Plant Conservation Network

Tawa photographs courtesy of Edin Whitehead.

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