Cracking kowhai

Wandering along the lakefront in Wanaka and had my eye caught by some large, spreading kowhai trees – nothing like the poor, stunted specimens that serve as street trees in my neighbourhood. These were trees with grunt and clearly of some age.

Kowhai seedpods. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The ground beneath them was peppered with small golden seeds as the wind tossed the branches around. Kowhai  are part of the Sophora family – the Maori name means ‘yellow’ and is pronounced something like ko-fie. Unfortunately, evolution has seen fit to give the tree a seed with a particularly tough outer shell. The tree man I chatted to in Wanaka reckoned seeds that fell in the lake did okay as stones and sand abraded the tough outer shell so water could get in.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

To help start your own seeds try this advice from DOC.

Here in the Western Bay of Plenty we don’t have any naturally occurring kowhai thanks to the volcanic ash and pumice that covered the area 27,000 years ago after the Taupo eruption.

In a 2009 interview Robert McGowan (Pa Ropata), a rongoa Maori medicine expert, said: “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.”

Kowhai in bloom. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Southland’s Denis Hughes is trying to collect all the various types of kowhai. Read more here. His Blue Mountain Nurseries catalogue is here.

3 thoughts on “Cracking kowhai

  1. I have kowhai grown bought approx 2yrs. Now in Pot 6feet+. I’m at 53°north, Liverpool UK. In suburban yard. It’s leaves are dropping. Does it need a bigger pot? Gave it little feed. Am I expecting too much from my lovely tree In Northern latitudes?💌

    • Hello Irene, Thanks for the question. Kowhai grow quite happily all over NZ so will be at the equivalent of your latitude in some places. It might be heat stress, being mid-summer, and certainly a ‘little feed’ wouldn’t hurt. Are the leaves dropping or disappearing? Birds and/or slugs and snails might be the culprit if they’re disappearing.

    • Sorry Irene, got cut off mid-flow: Some species of kowhai are brevideciduous, meaning they shed their leaves before flowering (normally spring, but may be a bit later for you). These trees don’t like a lot of wind so be sure to give it a bit of shelter if you can. All the best, Sandra

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