Totara trees possess a wide range of meanings that capture the imagination, from healing, respect and divination to the physical effects of longevity.
Totara is also a sacred tree for many cultures: the Maori, Tane Mahuta, the Sun God, the Green Man, and the lord of the forest all have symbolic attachments with Totara.
Despite Totara trees having existed virtually unchanged for an extensive 70 million years, they continue to be used in modern culture as metaphors for strength and innovation.
The totara tree meaning symbolises wisdom and respect for elderhood which has enabled this species to withstand harsh environmental conditions across centuries.
Respect, divination, healing, longevity
Tane Mahuta, the Lord of the Forest (Maori)
Stephen King, an environmentalist, led a series of protests in 1978 that resulted in the creation of the Pureora Forest Reserve. This reserve provides safety for the growth of totaras.
About Totara Trees
Podocarpus is an ancient genus of about 75 species of mostly coniferous trees and shrubs that remain unchanged after 70 million years. These plants thrive in mountains, highlands, and the temperate southern hemisphere, but can also be found in the West Indies and Japan.
The totara (P. totara), a tree with silvery-grey bark and needle-like leaves, is native to New Zealand. It grows fruit that is red and about ½in (1.2cm) long. The oldest living specimen of the totara tree is the Pouakani Tree, in North Island’s Pureora forest Reserve, which has reached a height of 180ft (55m) over its 1,800-year lifespan.
The wood from the totara tree has been used for centuries by the Maori people for carving ceremonial objects and canoes, as well as building their homes.
These trees are selected many years in advance and are often given names. However, when European timber companies arrived in the 19th century, they destroyed much of the totara population without regard for its cultural or historical significance.
Fortunately, some of these forest habitats remain and provide a home for rare animals such as the New Zealand falcon, blue duck and North Island robin.
The Maori people have traditionally used the smoke of totara bark to treat skin disorders and the boiled bark as a fever reliever.
The Buddhist pine (P. macrophyllus), which is related to the totara tree, is commonly used in Java and Malaysia for treating arthritis and rheumatism.
Folklore, Myth and Symbol of the Totara Trees
In Maori culture, the spirit of the totara tree is revered as an ancestor of sorts. Consequently, felling one without permission from the Lord of the Forest would be sacrilegious – as illustrated by the legend of Rata’s Waka.
The legend says that he found the perfect Totara tree to chop down for his canoe, but after returning the next day, he noticed it had grown back overnight. He chopped it down again and came back to find it had returned once more.
The night after he cut down a tree for the third time and started carving it into a canoe, he saw all the birds and insects collecting wood chips to put the tree back together. Rata was amazed, hugged the totara, apologized, and vowed never to cut another tree down. Then he heard a voice say “You may, but you must first ask Tane Mahuta—Lord of the Forest—for permission.” When Rata turned around his finished canoe was waiting for him
Though the exact origins of the totara tree’s involvement in Polynesian culture are unknown, we do know that this mystical tree has a long history of being associated with respect and divination.
The next time you see a totara tree, take a moment to appreciate its beauty and think about all the ways it has been – and continues to be – significant in Polynesian culture.