Kowhai corridor

I’ve often thought that food corridors or food islands are a great idea to benefit our native birds and here’s a long-term joint project that is doing just that. West Otago Lions and Blue Mountain Nurseries, which is celebrating 90 years in business, in early September planted 55 kowhai trees, adding to the 200 planted in 2015, as part of their project to create a nature corridor at the base of the Blue Mountains in Tapanui.

The trees are a late winter-early spring food source for nectar-eating birds including bellbirds, waxeyes, tui and kereru (wood pigeons). The kowhai (Sophora) have been sourced from all over New Zealand, as well as Chile and Lord Howe Island, so the nature corridor also serves as a genetic library. The various species planted have been catalogued by Denis Hughes, patriarch and plant breeder at Blue Mountain Nurseries, and their locations recorded so plants can be reproduced or selected for future plantings in the district or nationally. Denis is a real expert on this New Zealand native tree and you can read his descriptions of the types that the nursery stocks here.

Sophora godleyi growing beside the Rangitikei River at the historic Springvale Bridge. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Denis’ list includes something called Rangitikei kowhai, which caught my eye, given my connections with that area. A quick Google later had me reading a 2016 Rangitikei District Council newsletter with a section written by the parks and reserves team leader.

This kowhai is one of the last to flower … The hills around Taihape are covered in this plant and it is a real treat to see them in full bloom. Sophora godleyi, also known as Godley’s kowhai, papa kowhai, or Rangitikei kowhai. Grows naturally in the west of the North Island from Te Kuiti to Manawatu … Is named after Dr Eric Godley [1919-2010], former head of the Department and Industrial Research (DSIR) Botany Division. It differs from other kowhai, in that it has a more twisted juvenile appearance which grows out with time. It is an extremely hardy plant that thrives in most areas of our region.

S. godleyi is particularly abundant in the catchments of major south-draining rivers, such as the Pohangina, Rangitikei, Turakina, Whanganui and Mangawhero. Its distribution may have been influenced by the Taupo volcanic eruption some 1,850 years ago, for it isn’t seen on the Central Plateau to the north.

It grows mainly on unstable bluffs, rock outcrops and hillsides so doesn’t have much to compete with and, unusually for a New Zealand native tree, doesn’t have a different juvenile phase which allows for a first flowering just a few years after establishment.

Rangitikei kowhai in flower above a stream in the Taihape area. Photo: Sandra Simpson

In his small book, Bulls: A History of the Township, farmer and naturalist Major R A Wilson (1909-1964) recalled that near the Bulls Bridge over the Rangitikei River was once an extensive flat covered with kowhai trees. In spring, he wrote, these trees were a mass of golden bloom that attracted hundreds of tui.

One year I met a … man and his wife admiring the beautiful sight and on talking to them found that though they lived in a district many miles away they made a special pilgrimage to Bulls each year to see it. There was generally a flood in the river about that time [September] which was known as the kowhai flood. I was a boy at the time and thought it strange to come merely to see the kowhai in bloom but in a later age I feel it was well worth the journey. Alas! Now the whole flat is gone [after flooding] and the kowhai with it.

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.

Our native plants: kowhai

another bitter morning
and then –
the first kowhai

– Cyril Childs, 1941-2012

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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.