Our native plants: kowhai

another bitter morning
and then –
the first kowhai

– Cyril Childs, 1941-2012


Kowhai blooms. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Despite its prosaic name – kowhai is simply the Maori word for yellow – a tree in flower means spring, doesn’t it? Oddly enough, the Bay of Plenty (where I live) is one of the few places in New Zealand where kowhai don’t occur naturally, thanks to the volcanic ash and pumice that covered the area from the Taupo “super-eruption” 27,000 years ago.

In a 2009 interview Robert McGowan (Pa Ropata), a rongoa Maori medicine expert, said this: “Anything with a wind-blown seed or a seed that will be dropped by birds comes back very quickly into a devastated landscape, but the seeds of a kowhai are generally carried back into a landscape by a flood and that will only happen after the rivers start to rebuild the landscape.

“Kowhai seeds can remain dormant for 100 years and need something to wake them up. The pod is very hard and needs to be cracked to get at the seed.” Read more about how to germinate kowhai seeds here.

In 1925 rugby great George Nepia had his career saved by the bark of the kowhai after injury threatened to end his playing days. Read all about the traditional treatment here.

The kowhai belongs to the Sophora family, Sophora being the Arabic word for a leguminous tree, which itself is part of the pea family (not suprising when you look at the leaves and flowers). It is said that when the kowhai came into flower, Maori knew it was time to plant their potatoes.

The Field Guide to New Zealand Native Trees by John Dawson and Rob Lucas (2012) lists seven separate types of kowhai, many of them hybridising with one another where their territories overlap. The trees aren’t seen in the bush (forest) but grow on open ground and some are semi-deciduous.

Dennis Hughes of Blue Mountain Nurseries in Southland is trying to create better kowhai for the garden, read about his work here. He has a vast selection of kowhai  available in the nursery catalogue (click on catalogues and then natives).

And why would we have a kowhai in the garden? As well as bright yellow flowers at what can still be a dull time of the year, there is also the bird life the nectar-filled flowers attract – tui, bellbirds and waxeyes.

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