Our native plants: White rata

Strolling through Pukekura Park in New Plymouth and  there in front of me was a breaking wave of white flowers, foaming all the way up a tree trunk and being much enjoyed by bees. A glorious sight.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

Metrosideros perforata is part of the pohutukawa-rata family, one of 12 species native to New Zealand. It has the typical small leaves of many plants native to the under-storey of Aotearoa and you’ve probably passed it in the bush without necessarily realising what it was as the vines make a distinctive ‘mosaic’ pattern as they ascend tree trunks. Read about Metrosideros and some of the family members at the informative O2 Landscape website.

White rata (akatea) can be found throughout the North Island in the west of the South Island and as far south as Banks Peninsula in the east. It can apparently form a small shrub if it’s not allowed to climb and my copy of Gardening with New Zealand Plants, Shrubs & Trees (Fisher et al, 1988) even recommends it as an alternative to box hedging! In fact, botanist Allan Cunningham (1791-1839) at one point named this plant Metrosideros buxifolia after noting its similarity to the common Buxus. The O2 Landscape website includes a photo of Metrosideros perforata growing in a shrub-like manner and suggesting that, indeed, it might be a useful hedging plant for anything from 40cm high to 1.5m. The Native Plant Centre in Albany, north Auckland, lists white rata for sale, as does Oratia Native Plant Nursery in west Auckland. Both appear to deliver around the country.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

Quoting Elsdon Best from The Pa Māori (1927), the website author says: “Metrosideros perforata had a valuable practical purpose for Māori, as it was one of the primary species used for lashing (of weapons as well as palisades). The thin young stems were tied in a green state, when they were still pliable, and subsequently dried to become very hard and rigid”.