Pukatea rises from wet and swampy ground to tower amongst the giants of the forest. To achieve this amazing feat, it builds itself walled buttress roots that help prop it up in soggy soil and keep it from falling over. In very wet conditions, it will even grow pneumatophores – small snorkel-like structures on its roots that help them breathe underwater.
The bark of Pukatea contains a powerful painkiller – Pukateine – an alkaloid with similar properties to Morphine. The bark was used in Māori medicine, and was infused with water and applied to sores, drunk to combat STDs and held in the mouth to soothe toothache. A study injecting rats with Pukateine suggests it may even have a role to play in treating Parkinsons disease.
Māori also found a number of uses for Pukatea timber, crafting it into bowls, clubs and paddles. However the wood can become waterlogged, making it undesirable as a material for building waka, where Tōtara was preferred. An old Maori proverb uses the different properties of these woods as an analogy for youth and old age.
Ka haere te tōtara haemata, ka takoto te pukatea wai nui.
The tōtara floats, while the pukatea lies in deep water.
The proverb sugges that young people can move and travel with freedom, while the elderly are like the Pukatea, weighed down with its waterlogged wood.
When Pukatea trees age they often leave cavernous hollows in the centre of the trunk. These hollows were sometimes used to hide the dead bodies of relatives to avoid them being discovered during enemy raids. Some individual Pukatea trees were said to posess the power to help women conceive. A young woman wishing to have a baby would visit these special trees with a Tohunga, who would call out incantations and request the woman become pregnant.
Want to find out more?
Nga Tipu Whakaoranga – Maori Plant Use Database
New Zealand Plant Conservation Network
Pukatea Trunk Photo courtesy of Beren Allen
Pukatea leaf photos by Robert Vennell