Our native plants: Whau

Entelea arborescens is a large shrub or small tree, the only one in its genus, and is part of the mallow family, which includes hibiscus, lacebarks and ribbon wood. The trunks of some members have tough fibres as a layer under the bark and these fibres have been used in many countries to make ropes, hats, mats and fishing nets, with the most important fibre in this family being the cotton plant.

Whau has large, soft leaves and is found where it doesn’t get browsed, which in my case meant the base track of Mauao (Mt Maunganui), although I’d seen the spiky, brown seedpods before and wondered what the plant might be. This particular day my attention was caught by the pretty, white flowers on a plant.

The flowers of whau have attractive crinkled petals and resemble a single rose. Photo: Sandra Simpson, taken on Mauao base track

Years ago I’d been told by someone who made wooden jewellery that not only was whau a very light wood, it also had an interesting green tinge to it. In fact, the wood is so light it was used by Maori as fishing floats, while long fibres from the trunk were used as fishing lines. (I’ve read that, when dry, whau in comparison to cork is no more than half the weight.)

The Meaning of Trees website entry says seasoned trunks were also lashed together with supplejack to construct small rafts for hunting crayfish and the plant was of such value to Māori that in some places it was actively cultivated. The Māori name of Auckland’s dormant volcano Mt Eden is Maungawhau (Mountain of the Whau Tree) so its slopes would likely once have been covered in whau, providing a constant supply of fishing material.

The NZ Plant Conservation Network entry says whau is found on Three Kings Islands, North (including Little and Great Barrier Islands) and South Islands. In the North Island, whau is locally common from Te Paki to about Kawhia and Mahia Peninsula, south of there it is known from a few sites in the eastern Wairarapa, at Paekakariki and Wellington. In the South Island it is confined to the Golden Bay area of northwest Nelson.

“Recent field work gathering samples for a Marsden study into the possible past use of whau by Maori indicates it is much less common in the North Island than it once was. Browsing pressure from cattle, goats and horses, clearance of coastal scrub of housing and the spread of invasive woody shrubs and trees into many northern coastal areas may be threatening some populations.”

The tree’s spiky seedpods, pictured at Zealandia in Wellington. Photo: Sandra Simpson

This pioneer species tree is short-lived, surviving for between 10 and 15 years, although easily grows from seed and cuttings. Laurie Metcalfe in The Cultivation of NZ Trees and Shrubs (Raupo, 2011) says the tree grows rapidly, is frost tender and once established can endure dry spells.

PME Williams is his book Te Rongoa Maori (Raupo, 1996) reports that leaves, heated in water, were made into a poultice for treating wounds and sores.

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