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Paper mulberry: Prized across the Pacific

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Paper mulberry: Prized across the Pacific

Paper mulberry leaves vary in shape. These ones are deeply lobed. This specimen was collected from a property near Lake Taupō.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. AK357001.

Paper, clothing, medicine, rope, furniture and food - all have been made from the paper mulberry tree, a Southeast Asian native tree that can now be found across the Pacific.​

Taken across the Pacific

The leaves on this specimen are un-lobed. This specimen was collected from Tamatarau Reserve, Whangarei Heads.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. AK355274.

Paper mulberry or aute (Broussonetia papyrifera)​ is a slender shrub or small tree, native to Taiwan and Southeast Asia where it has been used for making paper, rope and feeding to stock. Its native range is subtropical to temperate.

It is an economically important plant which has been widely distributed as a crop species associated with the Austronesian expansion across the Pacific in Polynesian prehistory as far as Papa Nui (Easter Island), Hawai’i and New Zealand. Throughout Polynesia the inner bark was used to make a barkcloth, known generally as tapa.

Today it has mainly been replaced by cotton and other fabrics - it died out in New Zealand during the 19th century. However, its manufacture and role in Polynesian culture still continues on some islands, including Tonga and some Fiji islands.

Leaves of all shapes and sizes

Paper mulberry belongs to the fig family, Moraceae, and like all members of that family it has sticky, milky sap. It is deciduous (loses its leaves) and dioecious (male and female flowers on separate plants). The male flowers are grouped in hanging catkins and the females in globose heads. In the Pacific, fruiting heads have only been reported from Rapa Nui (Seelenfreund et al. 2010).

Paper mulberry flowers infrequently in the Pacific and there is uncertainly whether both sexes are represented. This is compounded by the fact that most plants are harvested for their bark before they flower.

The 8-20 cm long leaves are highly variable in shape, even on the same plant, ranging from ovate to deeply 3-5 lobed. They are densely hairy and the margins are finely toothed.

The plant freely root-suckers which can make it a nuisance, but it also makes it easier to propagate. For dispersal in the Pacific, paper mulberry relies on vegetative propagation by humans.

Making tapa

When it is cultivated for tapa cloth in Tonga it is generally grown as an annual crop, propagated from root suckers or stem cuttings and harvested as spindly poles around 2 m tall

Skinny stems of paper mulberry vegetatively propagated for tapa cloth. Tongatapu, Aug 1987.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

The bark is then removed, soaked in water and the narrow bark strips are then beaten with wooden mallets to widen the strips from 8-10 cm to about 25 cm across.

Strips of paper mulberry bark soaked in water and being beaten to widen the bark strips with a four-sided wooden mallet. Tongatapu, August 1987.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

In 1996 Roger Neich documented and illustrated the 14 barkcloth beaters found in New Zealand at that time. These beaters Māori barkcloth beaters are from the Bay of Plenty, Taranaki and Waikato.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. QH197 REC.

After beating the strips are then glued together to make tapa; used for clothes and mats. The square-sided mallets usually have grooves on three sides and the fourth side is smooth, the beater works from coarse to smooth. The anvil is made of very hard wood, for example, from ‘ano (Guettarda speciosa) in Tonga.

Roger Neich (1996) in the Records of the Auckland Institute and Museum documented and illustrated the 14 barkcloth beaters found in New Zealand at that time. Most of the NZ beaters were made from kauri, and two were from podocarps (rimu, matai or totara). No New Zealand anvils have been identified (Neich 1996).

The DNA of paper mulberry

Recent DNA studies of paper mulberry in the Pacific indicate that the genetic diversity is similar between locations, except for Hawai’i ​ which was found to have a greater diversity.

To explain this diversity, a second introduction is suspected to Hawai’i ​ in post European times (Gonzalez-Lorca et al. 2015).

References and further reading

Gonzalez-Lorca J. et al. 2015. Ancient and modern introduction of Broussonetia papyrifera ([L.] Vent.; Moraceae) into the Pacific: genetic geographical and historical evidence. NZ Journal of Botany 53: 75-89.

Matthews, P. J. 1996. Ethnobotany and origins of Broussonetia papyrifera in Polynesia: an essay on tapa prehistory. In: Davidson, J. et al. eds. Oceanic culture history: essays in honour of Roger Green, Dunedin. NZ Journal of Archaeology Special Publication . Pp. 117-132.

Neich, R. 1996. New Zealand Maori barkcloth and barkcloth beaters. Records of the Auckland Institute and Museum  33: 111-158.

Seelenfreund, D. et al. 2010. Paper mulberry (>Broussonetia papyrifera) as a commensal model for human mobility in Oceana: anthropological, botanical and genetic considerations. NZ Journal of Botany 48: 231-247.

Whistler, A. 2009. Plants of the Canoe People: An Ethnobotanical Voyage through Polynesia. University of Hawai’i Press.

Cite this article

Cameron, Ewen. Paper mulberry: Prized across the Pacific. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 5 April 2016. Updated: 14 April 2016.

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