The Auckland War Memorial Museum Herbarium holds a total of 1904 plant specimens from Fiji. These have been collected through ongoing botanical surveys over many years. The herbarium started receiving steady botanical exchange specimens from Fiji from the 1940s onwards from eminent New Zealand botanists such as John Parham, William (Bill) Sykes, John Braggins, Barbara Parris and, most recently, Rhys Gardner, who surveyed Fiji’s rich and diverse flora. Amongst these specimens, we house a very special one: Masiratu (Degeneria vitiensis).
Masiratu belongs to the genus Degeneria, which includes only two living species: D. vitiensis and D. roseiflora. Both of them are found only in Fiji. The seed of these enigmatic plants contains 3 – 4 cotyledons (the first leaves emerging from a seed).1 This is a very rare feature because most dicotyledonous plants (such as papaya and tomato) have two cotyledons, as the name suggests.
The masiratu is a rainforest tree that grows up to 30 metres tall, and is found between 30 and 1150 metres above sea level in Viti Levu, Vanua Levu, and Taveuni. Masiratu is not a rare species, but it can be difficult to spot because it is usually found deep in the forest. The best time of the year to find it is between February and May when the flowers or fruits are shed on the forest floor.
Masiratu was first discovered by Western science in the 1930s when several specimens with young fruits were collected but remained unidentified. In 1941, a flowering specimen was collected by a Hawaiian botanist, Otto Degener. He was an avid and seasoned plant collector who was intrigued by this plant from the moment he arrived in Fiji! Masiratu was formally described to science in 1942,2 and named after Degener. The Auckland Museum herbarium cares for two of his specimens, collected in 1968 and 1977, which came as a gift to our collections.
Back then, botanists recorded three local names for Digeneria vitiensis: baubau(loa) (meaning black shoe) in Northern Upland of Viti Levu, masiratu in the southern Viti Levu, and yalanggele from Vanua Levu. Later the botanists realised that yalanggele was used for the second species of the genus, D. roseiflora, which was given a scientific name in 1988.
Masiratu is an iconic plant in Fiji. It has adorned the back of the FD$5 bank note since 2007, and was included on postage stamps in 1988. The bark is used for perfume and woven into masi(tapa) to be worn by chiefs. A.C. Smith, a Fijian plants expert, wrote, that open flowers emit ‘delicious fragrance resemble to ylang ylang[or mokosoi in Fijian]’ 1.
This plant has also been featured by Sue Wickison, a contemporary botanical artist, who portrayed this species while she lived in Suva in 2013. Read a story of Sue’s quest to paint the masiratu here.
Image: Copyright © Sue Wickison, All Rights Reserved. With thanks to Lynn Parker (Curator, Illustrations and Artefact Collections, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew) for the permission to include a scan of the original.
Background image: © Herve Sauquet
You can also take a look at the Masiratu specimens on our collections online here.