Tree of the moment: Rewarewa

rewarewa - Copy

A rewarewa flower unfurling beside a busy street in Tauranga. Just visible in the background are the old seed pods. Photo: Sandra Simpson

I spotted the rewarewa tree in Greerton’s shopping area a couple of years ago but had never been in the right place at the right time (with camera) to get a photo of the beautiful flowers – until now.

Sandwiched in tarmac between a small off-street carpark and the footpath it wouldn’t seem to be in ideal conditions but it’s apparently thriving and covered in racemes of intricate flowers just opening or waiting to open. I was once told that rewarewa flowers “are like candyfloss to possums”.

Knightia excelsa grows naturally throughout the North Island, but only in the Malborough Sounds in the South Island, according to the Tane’s Tree Trust website. Maori appreciated the flowers for their nectar, but didn’t use the attractive wood, which is usually pale with a reddish-brown fleck. Early settlers called it the bucket of water tree as it made useless firewood! Its more common name is New Zealand honeysuckle. Honey produced from the tree is said to be a beautiful deep reddish-amber colour with a rich, full bodied caramel-like taste.

The trees are a colonising species in the wild and grow in a conical shape – up to 30m tall but with only a 1m diameter trunk – and have tough, leathery leaves. Lawrie Metcalf writes in his 2011 book The Cultivation of NZ Trees and Shrubs (Raupo) that rewarewa will grow in sun or shade, although very dry conditions will make growth slower.

“The flowers secrete copious quantities of nectar at their bases, to which tui and bellbirds are attracted. In fact, the birds can often be seen investigating the state of the flowers long before they are ready to open. In their desire for the nectar the birds are dusted with pollen, which they transfer from the younger open flowers to the receptive stigmas of the older flowers.”

The tree is a member of the Protea family and distantly related to the Banksias of Australia.

In his 1884 book, Medical Botany of New Zealand, P J O’Carroll noted that the inner part of the bark was bandaged on to wounds and he had seen several wounds healed in a surprisingly short space of time. PME Williams in Te Rongoa Maori (Raupo, 2008) notes that the inner bark was applied in its raw state by bushmen to stem the bloodflow from cuts, and the bark was also used as a bandage. Researchers in 1987 reported that the bark contains beta-sitosterol, a major component of an American proprietary drug used to lower blood cholesterol levels.

Knightia excelsa was first collected at Tolaga Bay in 1769 by Daniel Solander during the first voyage of James Cook.

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