The paper mulberry tree is native to southeast Asia. Genetic evidence shows that it was carried from Taiwan and cultivated in plantations by early voyagers, reaching throughout Polynesia. Although it can grow to be a tree 35 metres high, in practice it is coppiced (cut at ground level) in Polynesia, forming a multi-stemmed shrub 2-4 metres tall. Paper mulberry is dioecious, that is with separate male and female-flowered plants; it was exclusively female plants that spread as canoe plants. Without fertilisation these do not set seed, so the species was spread vegetatively, carried as suckers. Today some male plants are also found in Hawai‘i, probably the legacy of a recent introduction from Japan where paper mulberry is grown for paper-making. Like many other genera in the mulberry family, including breadfruit and some wild figs, the tree’s inner bark is strong and amenable to beating into barkcloth. Most barkcloth in Polynesia was and is made from paper mulberry bark. The coppiced trees are usually cut at 1-2 years old and less than 4cm in diameter, as the young inner bark is easier to separate from the outer bark, and easier to beat. Once the stem is harvested, a vertical incision in the bark allows it to be removed, and the inner bark can then be separated from the outer bark. The inner bark can be stored for later use, or soaked in water prior to beating.
paper mulberry; Tonga, Niue: hiapo; Samoa: uʻa; Futuna: lafi; Cook Islands, Aotearoa New Zealand: aute; Hawai‘i: wuake; Fiji: malo, masi
Entry created on 28 August 2020