Polynesian plant names used on Lord Howe Island

Guest post by Jim Smith (PhD, Macquarie University):

In 2001 the discovery of a colony of Lord Howe Island Stick Insects living on Balls Pyramid, near Lord Howe Island, received international publicity. This species, originally very common on Lord Howe Island, had been thought to be extinct until rockclimbers, in 1964 and 1969, found evidence that it was still surviving on Balls Pyramid. In 2001 the Balls Pyramid colony was observed eating the leaves of a Tea-tree Melaleuca howeana which is endemic to Lord Howe and adjacent islands.

The local name of this Melaleuca species was first published in 1869: “A shrubby Melaleuca, inhabiting rocky exposed situations near the coast on the south-western side… locally called kilmogue, is used as a substitute for tea and said to be a pleasant and exhilarating beverage.” (Hill 1869:7; Moore 1870:9).1 When Maiden recorded the local vernacular names of plants and trees on Lord Howe Island in the 1880s, only two had non-English names. These were the Melaleuca, still known as kilmogue and Elaeodendron curtipendulum, a large tree also found on Norfolk Island and New Caledonia, which was known as tumana (Maiden 1898). The Melaleuca was still known as kilmoke in the 1930s (Nicholls 1938:90).

The South Island Māori word for the Tea-tree (Leptospermum scoparium) was kirimoko, also recorded as kilimoko, killmogue and kilmog (Orsman 1997). Early New Zealand settlers adopted this name and made ‘tea’ from infusions of its leaves. The first settlers of Lord Howe Island, in the early 1830s, included a group of Māori women. These women left in 1841 and they may not have been there when the next settlers arrived. It is possible that any of the Europeans who came to Lord Howe Island between 1841 and the 1860s, who had lived in New Zealand, could have introduced the word.

When I was on Lord Howe Island in 1969 I found that the Polynesian name for this Tea-tree was still in use and pronounced [kilmo]. However, when botanists from the National Herbarium of New South Wales did a plant survey of the island in the early 1980s they may have been misinformed, as they recorded that that another unrelated species, Cassinia tenufolia, was known by this local name (as killmoke or killmug) (Rodd and Pickard 1983:279). This error was repeated in the Flora of Australia (Wilson 1994:378). The Lord Howe Island resident naturalist Ian Hutton (personal communication July 2015) has advised that only one 85-year-old man on Lord Howe Island now uses this name, but for Cassinia tenufolia.2

In the 1930s the Elaeodendron tree was called tamana on Lord Howe Island, with Nicholls remarking: “A tree known as Tamanu is found in the Pacific Islands, but it is not related to the Lord Howe Island tree” (Nicholls 1938:89).

Tamanu is a word widely used in Polynesia (but not in New Zealand) for a tree in a different genus and family Calophyllum inophyllum (Ross et al 2008:154). In the 19th century, timber from this tree, sourced from various Pacific islands, and usually referred to as Tamana, was a significant item of commerce (e.g. Anonymous 1849:2). Today, the word Tamanu is recognised internationally, as Tamanu oil, sourced from the seeds of Calophyllum trees in Polynesia and Vanuatu, is a popular cosmetic item.

It is possible that mariners among the early settlers of Lord Howe Island saw a resemblance between the local tree Elaeodendron curtipendulum and the tree Calophyllum inophyllum that they were familiar with in other Pacific Islands and gave it the Polynesian name. The tree is still called Tamana on Lord Howe Island today (Hutton 2002:102).

In prehistoric times Lord Howe Island was one of the few islands in the South Pacific which had not been discovered by Polynesians. It is of interest that two Polynesian plant names became established there through their usage by non-indigenous settlers.


David Nash supplied some of the references for this article.


Anonymous, 1849, ‘Imports’, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 March, page 2. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article12906069

Hill, E. 1869, ‘Lord Howe Island’, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 June, page 7. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13192075

Hutton, I. 2002, A Field Guide to the Plants of Lord Howe Island, published by the author, Lord Howe Island.

Maiden, J. 1898, ‘Observations on the vegetation of Lord Howe Island’, Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales, Volume 23.

Moore, C. 1870, ‘Sketch of the Vegetation of Lord Howe Island’, Lord Howe Island. Reports &c Of Official Visit To, Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales, Volume 1.

Nicholls, M. 1938, A History of Lord Howe Island, first edition (second edition, Hobart, 1951).

Orsman, H. (ed) 1997, The Dictionary of New Zealand English: a dictionary of New Zealandisms on historical principles, Oxford University Press, Auckland.

Rodd, A. and J. Pickard. 1983, ‘Census of vascular flora of Lord Howe Island’, Cunninghamia, Volume 1(2).

Ross, M, A. Pawley and M. Osmond (eds) 2008, The Lexicon of Proto Oceanic, Volume 3, Pacific Linguistics, Canberra.

Wilson, A. 1994, Flora of Australia, Volume 49, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1994.


  1. In Australia and New Zealand species of both Melaleuca and Leptospermum can be referred to as Tea-trees. Leptospermum polygalifolium occurs on Lord Howe Island but does not appear to have been made into ‘tea’ or referred to by the Polynesian name.
  2. This gentleman may have been the informant for Rodd and Pickard in the early 1980s.

One Comment

  1. David Nash says:

    This article has now been published in The Lord Howe Island signal magazine.

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