What’s a punga?

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A more comprehensive account of New Zealand’s tree ferns is available here.

‘Punga’ is a quintessential Kiwi word used to refer to tree ferns or sometimes, more specifically, the trunks of tree ferns.  But in his book A Dictionary of Maori Plant Names, James Beever does not record any tree ferns as being called punga by Māori.  I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that ‘punga’ is an English corruption of ponga. Does anyone know otherwise?

Ponga is the silver fern Cyathea dealbata, which is a real plant and not just a marketing creation!  Adult ponga are immediately recognisable by the white undersides of their fronds, and they can be identified even at a distance by the white tinge of their fronds’ stems.

The white underside of a frond of ponga, Cyathea dealbata.

The white underside of a frond of ponga, Cyathea dealbata.

Ponga, Cyathea dealbata.

Ponga, Cyathea dealbata.

There are two main groups of tree ferns: Cyathea and Dicksonia. They are easily distinguished since the former is scaly and the latter is hairy.

cyathea_dicksonia_koru

Koru, or young uncurling fronds, of Cyathea (left) and Dicksonia (right).

Besides ponga, the other prominent Cyathea in New Zealand are mamaku and kātote.  Mamaku, or Cyathea medullaris, is our tallest tree fern, with thick, black frond stems, and it is a common coloniser of hillside slips.

Te Papa has a specimen of mamaku collected in 1769 during Captain Cook’s first expedition.

Mamaku, Cyathea medullaris.

Mamaku, Cyathea medullaris.

Kātote, or Cyathea smithii, is recognised by its retention of dead frond stems as a ‘skirt’. It is more common in colder habitats.

Kātote, Cyathea smithii.

Kātote, Cyathea smithii.

Whekī (pronounced ‘fare-key’, with emphasis on the ‘e’ sound in ‘key’) and whekī-ponga are the prominent Dicksonia species in New Zealand. Whekī-ponga, or Dicksonia fibrosa, retains a skirt of dead fronds, and its trunk can reach a comparatively massive girth.

Whekī-ponga, Dicksonia fibrosa.

Whekī-ponga, Dicksonia fibrosa.

Whekī, or Dicksonia squarrosa, is commonly found around streams and other wet areas.  Even as young plants, whekī and whekī-ponga can be easily distinguished by the colour of their fronds’ stems, which are brown and green respectively. Whekī forms buds on its trunk, and it can resprout if the main crown is damaged – or if the fronds and roots are cut off and the trunk is used to make a fence!

dicksonia_squarrosa

Whekī, Dicksonia squarrosa.

Many pungas for sale are not actually ponga but whekī.  If you want to make a wall of tree fern trunks that has a reasonable chance of coming back to life, ask for whekī.

All of New Zealand’s tree ferns are described and illustrated in the book New Zealand Ferns and Allied Plants, by Patrick Brownsey and John Smith-Dodsworth.

41 Responses

  1. Joronda

    Can you cut a ponga dickison log ($20) into several lengths and plant them in the ground so they each come to life?

    Bunnings re-marked their smaller ponga up from $29.95 to $37.67 in the last week, so they are getting a bit expensive for me to buy already grown.

    Two large ponga I planted in December, 2013 went into hibernation despite a lot of watering. I thought the drought had killed them, but a few weeks ago, I felt little thongs developing inside. One has now burst into green life, and the other has two thongs that look like they will appear/open before the end of September. I am relieved because they cost an arm and a leg to buy.

    Reply
  2. Dan

    Please help us solve a ponga mystery. A white fluid discharging from a golf ball size hole in a ponga. A loud noise emanating from said hole. Discovered in West Auckland stand of bush. What was it? My six-year old MUST know!

    Reply
    • Leon Perrie

      Hi Dan,
      Sorry, I don’t know. But maybe it is an insect which has burrowed into the trunk. Perhaps a weta. They can be quite loud. The white fluid is possibly the ponga try to heal the damage. I’ll forward your comment to our entomologists in case they know more.
      Leon

    • Leon Perrie

      Hi again Dan,
      Te Papa’s entomologists say that weta don’t make holes, but they do use (and enlarge) holes made by other animals. You might just have to take a close look!

  3. Helen Ellams

    I ‘very been told to feed my poorly Punga with brown sugar right at the top anyone else heard this?

    Reply
  4. Debbie

    We have a life style property with lots of punga – is it possible to compost punga leaves ? They seem to minimize weed growth when I lay them between plants – not sure if this is because there’s something in them that stops other things growing?

    Reply
    • Leon Perrie

      Hi Debbie,
      Composting tree fern fronds should be fine. I’m not aware of any chemicals in them that suppress the growth of other plants. They’ve probably slowed weed growth by shading seedlings – a kind of mulching-effect.
      Leon

  5. innercitybuddha

    to Judy – you could cut the tree fern i half if you so wanted but it would take time to regrow. The roots of the tree fern run from the top to the bottom on the outside of the trunk

    Regards ICB

    Reply
  6. Leon Perrie

    Hi Judy,
    Unless it is wheki/Dicksonia squarrosa, I think lopping the top of your tree fern will kill it, unfortunately. If it is wheki, there’s a chance it will resprout.
    There’s more pictures to help you identify which species you have here: http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/theme.aspx?irn=2024
    Leon

    Reply
  7. Leon Perrie

    Hi Phyllis,
    I’m not sure, but I’d initially treat the young, unfurling fronds like you would asparagus. If the stems are thicker, perhaps cook them for a little longer.
    Good luck,
    Leon

    Reply
  8. Judy Rutherford

    My ponga/punga is too tall, I want to shorten it but not kill it. If I lop the top off will it regrow? I dont want to kill it.
    New gardener – Judy

    Reply
  9. phyllis

    Would like to know how to cook the punga fronds

    Reply
  10. innercitybuddha

    This really is the BEST EVER blog on tree ferns I have seen. Thank you for the fantastic pictures and detailed information to aid recognition. Kind regards ICB

    Reply
  11. Megan

    Thanks heaps!!!

    Reply
  12. Leon Perrie

    Hi Megan,
    Phil’s suggestion about symbolism is a good one; i.e., the commercialisation and, to some extent, ‘ownership’ of something from nature. Is this good or bad? – plenty to discuss there.
    Leon

    Reply
  13. Megan

    Thanks :)
    This is for one of my essays – well research, and i have to write a few hundred words on ethical issues on the silver fern.
    which i am having a super hard time finding info on!!! ahh

    Reply
  14. phil

    but perhaps Megan’s enquiry related to the symbolism of silver fern and koru in nz culture.

    Reply
  15. phil

    ethical issues ? well in nz they grow wild all over the place. can be bought and sold, used for garden borders, retaining walls, fences, semi-permanent rough buildings, temporary lean-to shelters and ornaments. the thick black bases can be sculptured, the trunks can be lathe turned to unique effect. a mischievous boy can cause great upset by putting the fur inside a victim’s clothes, the effect being similar to insulation wool i.e. very uncomfortable. the white pith inside can be eaten – tastes reminiscent of carrot / coconut when raw, have not tried it cooked porridge style as the Maori used to. have never heard of any ethical considerations. but if you drop one on your chainsaw it will grieve you greatly – they are heavy. : )

    Reply
  16. Megan

    oops, Ponga – the silver fern tree

    ethical issues surrounding ponga

    Reply
  17. Megan

    Hello, just curious to know what are the ethical issues of punga in NZ?

    Reply
  18. innercitybuddha

    Very factual, very grateful, I do have issues with a tree fern so please if you don’t mind I have included a link to my page, it is dying and I want to save it. Hoping you may be able to impart some advice via your page. http://innercitybuddha.wordpress.com/2011/03/19/please-help-me-save-my-tree-fern/

    Best of British to ya… ICB

    Reply
  19. francoe

    In sudamerica punga is a common name for a pickpocket.

    Reply
  20. Leon

    Hi James,
    Don’t know, sorry. Check with some of your local garden/landscape stores.
    Personally, I’d put a little premium on wheki trunks, since the cut trunk can resprout (which I like, cause you end up with a “living fence”), whereas trunks of ponga/mamaku etc. can’t regrow once cut down.
    Cheers, Leon

    Reply
  21. James

    Im in a year 13 business studies class and our business is selling punga trunks cut down to be used for retaining walls and garden landscaping.
    as research we are trying to find out how much would you pay for a punga per meter?
    cheers

    Reply
  22. add url

    Thank you for the response, I had difficulty in finding any information on growing pungas.

    Reply
  23. Leon Perrie

    Hi Shelly,
    Ponga frequently grows on clay hillsides, so should be fine. Probably mamaku too. Wheki might be okay as well, if the soil never dries out much.

    Reply
  24. Shelly

    Hi guys! Great info!! Was wondering, a friend of mine owns a house and his land is all clay soil, do you know if pungas grow in that type of soil? thanks

    Reply
  25. Leon Perrie

    Hi Laura Lee,
    I don’t know for sure, but I suspect they are not too fussy in cultivation. I have some at home, outside in our clay ‘soil’, and they are doing well. In the wild, silver ferns occur in dryish sites so I’d be wary about having them stand in water. I’m away from work at present. If I can find out more from our library, I’ll post it here.

    Reply
  26. laura lee in london

    Thanks Leon , good stuff
    was just wondering if you could help i have
    about 14 pungas [silver ferns] growing in pots in my garden in greenwich , london from spores bought in nz [my husbands a kiwi] they took nearly four years to germinate and have since survived three warmish winters but i cant find any specific info on what soil to use to give them the best start, the largest ones trunk is about half a foot & they have lots of spores coming.
    any info would be greatly appriciated!
    Thanks

    Reply
  27. Leon Perrie

    Hi Phil,
    Sorry, I don’t have any experience with, or knowledge of, this myself. The trunks of wheki seem to be relatively popular in the garden trade, but I don’t know if this is because they are the best. Anyone else know more?

    Reply
  28. phil

    hi Leon
    i was told that some ‘pongas’ are more suitable than others for fencing – or more accurately as a cladding for clay banks. the claim was that some will rot out quickly and some will last well. do you know if this is so, and which types are to be avoided ?

    Reply
  29. Astrid

    Hi Leon,

    They have no green fronds on them. I am hoping they will come back to life. Thanks for the alternative fast growing type; I
    will look for that type in my next purchase.
    Thank you for the response, I had difficulty in finding any information on growing pungas.
    Astrid

    Reply
  30. Leon

    Hi Astrid,
    Sorry, I’m not an expert fern-grower. Have they still got green fronds on them? If so, they might just be spending some time establishing themselves (growing roots etc.). I suspect Dicksonia fibrosa is not a fast-grower. If you want a fast growing tree fern and don’t get many frosts, try Cyathea medullaris (mamaku).
    Leon

    Reply
  31. Astrid

    Hi Leon,

    I have 3 Dicksonia Fibrosa – Tree Ferns, that are not growing. I purchased these from the local Mitre 10.
    The first summer these produced new ferns, however they now have stopped sprouting [the last 2 years]. I hope you can help.

    Astrid

    Reply
  32. Leon Perrie

    Hi Sandra,
    That’s fine; link away. Cool pictures on your site!
    Leon

    Reply
  33. Sandra Reid

    Hi Leon,

    I’ve been trying to find a nice article on the punga to help explain its relationship to my fractal art for an international audience, yours is great.

    I hope you don’t mind me linking to it.

    Thank you!

    Sandra Reid

    Reply
  34. Leon Perrie

    Hi Jen,
    Glad you found it useful. I’m just back from field-work, much of it in sand-dune country, which is one of the few habitats in NZ where tree ferns are not very common.
    Maybe “punga” will become an ‘international’ word?
    Leon

    Reply
  35. Jen

    A friend lives in NZ and talked about pungas so I looked it up and your site was fascinating. Thanks

    Reply
  36. Anthony

    Trawling the web and came accross your blog – fascinating and really enjoyed reading about Pungas would possibly like to put something on my info section of my website (for interest) and would like to attribute to you if thats ok

    Reply

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