What’s a punga?

What’s a punga?

‘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.

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!

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.

Read a more comprehensive account of New Zealand’s tree ferns.


  1. Avatar

    Thanks so much for the info. I never realised there were so many different types of ferns!

  2. Avatar

    “Punga” (with the emphasis on the U) is almost certainly a written form of European inflection of the Maori word Ponga. Punga exists in maori mythology as the spirit of ugliness… which we all know Ponga is not. 😀 …


  3. Avatar

    Hi there, i have a large Dickinson punga and want to grow some more from it. Is it possible to grow Dickinson Punga from cuttings? If so, how should I do this? I wondered if cutting off one of the mature koru from the centre and planting in potting mix and mulch might work. Thanks!

    1. Leon Perrie

      Hi Paul. I haven’t heard of propagating ferns by cuttings. I really doubt it would work, sorry.
      Some ferns produce bulbils (like the hen and chickens fern) that make vegetative propagation easier. If you had a wheki tree fern with buds on the trunk, and layered the trunk (laid it down in soil), maybe you could get it to produce multiple individuals, one from each bud. You can work out what kind of tree fern you have from the pictures/links. But I reckon that would be a long shot.
      Otherwise, you can try cleaving the rhizome (~ root stock) into separate pieces. I’ve done that with small ferns. I doubt very much that it would be successful with a trunked tree fern.
      If you want more tree ferns, I suspect you have to acquire more individuals that have been propagated (either naturally or artificially) by spore.

  4. Avatar

    I purchased a dicksonia squarrosa from bunnings. We planted it in August. Unfortunately we were hit with a heavy frost. Now the leaves have turned brown. Should we cut them off or has the plant died.

    1. Leon Perrie

      Kia ora Jennifer. Sorry for my delayed response – I’ve been away. I also apologise in not being an expert on growing ferns; my specialty is identifying them. I cannot tell whether your plant has died. However, I think it is safe to cut off the brown fronds. Then all you can do is cross your fingers that the trunk will resprout. Good luck, Leon

  5. Avatar

    hi, I’ve noticed in the last week that little punga’s have started growing in my garden path next to a large punga. Am I able to dig them up and replant them or will they be connected to the adult tree? thank you

    1. Leon Perrie

      Hi Sharon,
      Depending on the species, they may be connected to the adult tree. Regardless, I think there is a reasonable chance you’ll be able to dig them up and replant them. Try digging up one. If it has well-formed roots, it should be fine.

  6. Avatar

    Hi, I cant find the answer to this anywhere and might be a silly beginner question, but can I grow a wheki in a pot and keep its size small? Or will it need to be planted out eventually?

    1. Leon Perrie

      Hi Lesha,
      I’m going to guess that you can keep wheki in a pot for a fair while, and that keeping it in the pot will act to stunt its growth. But eventually it will start looking unhappy and/or out-grow the pot.
      There are plenty of native ferns that suit pots of whatever size, and whether it be indoors or outdoors. A good nursery should be able to advise.

  7. Avatar

    Hi, Sorry this is proably a stupid question but I have several Ponga’s that are to tall, and blocking out light, can you cut 1mtr off the trunk of a 4mtr ponga or will this kill it. Was wondering if new branches would come out at the new height. They are Dickinsons.

    Many thanks.

    1. Leon Perrie

      Nick – if they are wheki (Dicksonia squarrosa), look for buds on the trunk below the height you want to cut at. If there are buds, they might sprout fronds when the top is removed. All other NZ species will be killed by cutting the crown off.

  8. Avatar

    Just wondering if I can fell wheki at the base and then replant upright, for easy relocation without having to dig up roots and all?

    1. Leon Perrie

      I’ve never done it, but I believe it has a chance of working. Garden stores often sell wheki trunks (with no roots and the fronds chopped off) and these can resprout. Probably more likely to work if there are already buds formed on the trunk.

  9. Avatar

    Ive just planted a Dicksonia squarrosa tree fern, the soil is very clay and quite often water logged, will my tree fern rot? or would it like it?…. its partly shade and partly wind sheltered too…

    1. Leon Perrie

      Hi Joe,
      I think there is a good chance it will be okay. Dicksonia squarrosa quite likes having wet feet. Just not sure about the clay.

  10. Avatar

    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.

    1. Leon Perrie

      Hi Joronda,
      It might work with wheki (Dicksonia squarrosa) trunks. Best chance will be if each length has at least one obvious bud. See 5th photo on this webpage for what buds look like – they’re not often so common: http://www.fergusmurraysculpture.com/new-zealand/trees-and-flora/new-zealand-tree-ferns/
      I’m pretty sure it won’t work with ponga (Cyathea dealbata) or any of the other NZ tree ferns, since they don’t have buds on their trunks.
      Good luck,

    2. Avatar

      Thanks Leon.

  11. Avatar

    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!

    1. 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.

    2. 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!

  12. Avatar

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

  13. Avatar

    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?

    1. 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.

  14. Avatar

    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

  15. 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

  16. 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,

  17. Avatar

    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

  18. Avatar

    Would like to know how to cook the punga fronds

  19. Avatar

    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

    1. Avatar

      Hi – It’s probably the wrong time of year to do it but I’ve just dug up some Pongal from my property in the Catlins (South Otago) & intend replanting them at another property in Southland – via this site I have been able to identify that I have two different types of tree fern; Dickson Fibrosa & Cyathea Smith (Katote) – I’ll plant them after giving them a trim and fingers crossed they’ll survive. What a great source of information there is to be found here! ☺

  20. 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.

  21. Avatar

    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

  22. Avatar

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

  23. Avatar

    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. : )

  24. Avatar

    oops, Ponga – the silver fern tree

    ethical issues surrounding ponga

  25. Avatar

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

  26. Avatar

    In sudamerica punga is a common name for a pickpocket.

  27. 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

  28. Avatar

    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?

  29. Avatar

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

  30. 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.

  31. Avatar

    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

  32. 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.

  33. Avatar

    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!

  34. 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?

  35. Avatar

    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 ?

  36. Avatar

    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.

  37. 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).

  38. Avatar

    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.


  39. Leon Perrie

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

  40. Avatar

    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

  41. 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?

    1. Avatar

      Noted your reply, Leon, about tree ferns being uncommon in sand dunes. At Whitiau Scientific Reserve at mouth of Whangaehu River there are broad dune slacks with hundreds of sq metres densely covered in oioi (a rush, Apodasmia similis). Among the rushes I have recorded some 26 fern species, including 5 tree fern species, 3 of Cyathea (C. dealbata, C. cunninghamii, C. medullaris) and 2 of Dicksonia (D. fibrosa, D. squarrosa). The tree ferns are stunted because any new frond that gets above rush level (about 1 m) gets ‘burnt off’ by salt wind.

  42. Avatar

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

  43. Avatar

    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

Leave a comment