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  • Kōwhai trees litter the banks of rivers and streams and are a popular choice as a border for new roading developments around Aotearoa.

    Not only are they a beautiful addition to our gardens and roadways, but kōwhai are also a rich source of mātauranga Māori. The term mātauranga includes all areas of Māori knowledge – past, present and future. Due to its inclusion of all subjects of learning, it is described by Mead (2016) as “a super subject” and a “tool for thinking”. With that said, there is much known and to be known by Māori about our native kōwhai tree – some of which has been collated and is shared in this article.

    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    Rongoā and kōwhai bark

    Through careful observation and investigation, Māori developed a holistic healing system using native plants. Wai kōwhai – kōwhai bark boiled in water – was used to treat skin and muscle ailments.

    Rongoā – medicine

    The kōwhai tree plays an important medicinal role for Māori. Through careful research, Māori have used many parts of the kōwhai to help heal the wounded and sick.

    Bark from the kōwhai tree was crushed and boiled in water as an effective way of treating bruises and wounds. Known as wai kōwhai, this has also been used for skin ailments such as shingles, itching and dandruff.

    Other parts of the tree, including the roots and leaves, were used to treat other ailments such as gastrointestinal, respiratory, skin and muscular pain.

    Māori knew that all parts of the kōwhai were poisonous when ingested. However, the seeds are particularly poisonous, which Western science has since confirmed, as it contains the toxin cytisine. Many seeds need to be consumed for poisoning to take place and symptoms to occur. The symptoms include vomiting, increased heart rate, twitching of muscles and loss of coordination. There are also reports of people getting sick after eating kererū that had been feeding on the leaves of kōwhai.

    Rights: Public domain

    Kererū in a kōwhai tree

    All parts of the kōwhai tree are poisonous. Manu that consumed kōwhai, such as kererū, were known to make people sick and were avoided.

    Ngā taputapu – items

    Kōwhai wood was known for its durability and elasticity and was used for a wide range of tools in and around the pā and māra (gardens). It was also a popular choice for making weapons.

    Roots from the kōwhai tree were used to make matau (fish hooks). Branches were used to make kō (digging sticks) and bird snares. Although birds such as tūī feast on the kōwhai flower nectar, snares were not used in the branches of the kōwhai tree due to the trees being too open for the snares to be effective and the poisonous nature of the tree. The use of kōwhai wood for making eating utensils and bowls/plates was limited as there are reports that this made the users sick.

    Kōwhai is considered one of the strongest hard woods in Aotearoa. Taiaha (wooden spears) and patu (clubs) were made using wood from the kōwhai. Wedges for splitting wood were also made using the kōwhai.

    Hanga – building

    Due to the strength and durability of kōwhai, whare (houses/buildings) were often built using kōwhai. Taiapa (fences) and tūwatawata (stockade fences) were also built using kōhai wood, which is another testament to the durability of this wood as these were used to protect the people by keeping out enemy war parties.

    When European settlers arrived, they too appreciated the beauty and saw the practical uses of kōwhai. They recognised its strength and so began using it in various ways such as railway sleepers, house blocks and house piles.

    He tohutohu – symbolism

    Māori were and continue to be well aware of the unique properties of the natural resources available to them. Trees, in particular, were a significant part of everyday life both as a resource and as being rich in meaning.

    In Māori creation stories, Tāne – the caretaker of the forest – separated land and sky to allow light to shine into the world. Many whakataukī draw on the qualities of different trees to communicate a deeper meaning. Kupu whakarite are used to compare qualities of trees with people. Kōwhai are no exception with this whakataukī:

    I whea koe i te ao o te kōwhai?

    Where were you when the kōwhai was in bud?

    This whakataukī asks where they were when the hard work of weaving and garden preparation was being done as this time aligns with the flowering of the kōwhai.

    The phrase “ko te ao o te kōwhai” literally translates to springtime and shows the close connection between Māori and the natural world. Springtime is when the kōwhai bloom and the season was named after it. Mātauranga such as this is the basis for the maramataka – the Māori calendar.

    Rights: Bernard Spragg, Public domain

    Kōwhai blossoms – a tohu of spring

    A tohu is an indicator or marker. Kōwhai blossoms are tohu that inform local maramataka.

    Maramataka – calendar

    The maramataka is the traditional Māori system that guides life such as the planting, harvesting and collection of kai. It is based on the movements and phases of the Moon – te Marama and the stars – ngā whetū.

    The kōwhai flower served as an indicator that it was the planting season or spring as we know it. Once the bright kōwhai flower was out, Māori knew that the time had arrived to prepare and plant the soil for the year’s crops, including kūmara. The blooming kōwhai tree was also a tohu – a sign that kina and tipa (scallops) were ready to be harvested.

    The connection between springtime and the kōwhai was so strong that, if it rained during this time of the year, the rain was known as ua kōwhai or kōwhai rain.

    Mātauranga Māori of kōwhai

    Related content

    The Hub has more resources with mātauranga Māori content. Visit the mātauranga Māori topic and the māramatanga Māori concept and use the filters to narrow your search.

    Useful links

    The following resources feature mātauranga Māori of kōwhai:

    This PDF from the New Zealand Plant Conservation Network has information about kōwhai toxicity.


    Mead, H. M. (2016). Tikanga Māori: Living by Māori values. Huia Publishers.


    This article was written by Chloe Stantiall as part of the Teaching and Learning Research Initiative project Envisioning student possible selves in science: Addressing ‘plant blindness’ through place-based education. The project explores students’ sense of place and science-related possible selves through local curriculum units that focus on plants. Chloe was assisted by researchers Maurice M. W. Cheng and Bronwen Cowie from The University of Waikato.

      Published 29 May 2024 Referencing Hub articles
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