Curious plants: Elingamita johnsonii

Elingamita johnsonii is named after the steamer Elingamite which was wrecked on the west island of Three Kings in 1902 in dense fog with the loss of 45 lives; and after  World War 1 hero Major M E (Magnus Earle) Johnson, winner of the Military Cross, who found the tree in 1950.

He took his little keeler “Rosemary” on at least 8 expeditions to the Three Kings with botanists and students as crew. The Three Kings seaweed, Sargassum johnsonii, is also named after him.

The islands are 50 km northwest of New Zealand in the Tasman Sea (see some images here) – they are rugged, lashed by gales and home to some of our rarer and unusual native plants.

The fruit of Elingamita johnsonii pictured in Wellington Botanic Gardens. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Major Johnson returned to West King Island in 1951, accompanied by Professor Baylis of Otago University (a great plant hunter) and noticed a good number of Elingamita trees – two of the largest, which were sheltered from prevailing westerlies, were growing in full sun and had a spread of almost 4.5m. Seedlings, however, were scarce.

Seeds were collected and grown at the Mt Albert Plant Diseases Division of the DSIR (possibly now part of Plant & Food Rsearch, but there’s been so much renaming and merging it’s hard to know). Major Johnson also grew seed and in 1960 one of his plants flowered, as did one in Mt Albert. Hand pollination was carried out and Major Johnson’s plant bore fruit (drupes) which took 2 years to colour and remained on the tree for another 12 months after that.

His plant flowered again in 1963, the fruit this time taking 12 months to ripen.

The above information is largely taken from Gardening with New Zealand Plants, Shrubs & Trees by Muriel Fisher, E Satchell and Janet Watkins (Collins, 1988). The information on Major Johnson from the Tiritiri Matangi website, which also includes this information about the fruit of the Elingamita johnsonii: “… a red-skinned drupe which has white flesh and a single seed. It is said to be edible, the flesh tasting like an oily, salty apple.” Yum!

The Plant Conservation Network website notes that “the entire world population occupies a rather small area on one rocky island and two very small adjacent rock islets” and so is vulnerable to weather events, fire and rats (the islands are rodent free but the fruit is thought to be palatable to them).

Lawrie Metcalf, in his book The Cultivation of New Zealand Trees and Shrubs (Raupo, 2011), describes it as a handsome tree with glossy, deep green leaves, creamy or yellowish flowers, and, of course, the long-lasting large fruit. It is frost tender.

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