Our native plants: Kaka beak

The kaka beak (Clianthus), an endangered New Zealand native shrub, gets its name from the shape of the flower resembling the beak of the kaka, a native parrot. There are actually two red-flowered types (C. puniceus and C. maximus), plus a white-flowered variety.

Kaka beak generally flowers from early spring, although can flower year round. This was taken in Wellington’s Botanic Gardens in January. Photo: Sandra Simpson

A 2005 survey found only 153 C. maximus plants in the wild in the North Island’s East Coast and northern Hawke’s Bay, and under threat in all places from browsing animals, including sheep, cattle, deer and pigs. By 2013 that number had dropped to 109. The plants are not found naturally in the South Island.

The Forest Lifeforce Restoration Trust has come up with a novel way of trying to get more plants into the wild – packing shotgun cartridges with shot and kaka beak seed, going up in a helicopter and firing the cartridges into spots inaccessible to browsers!

As you see from the foliage, they’re part of the pea family so fix their own nitrogen and can grow in relatively poor soils. The spectacular clusters of flowers attract nectar-loving birds.

Gardening with NZ Plants, Shrubs and Trees (Collins, 1988) says it was one of the few plants pre-European Maori grew simply for its beauty – or possibly for flowers to feed caged (speaking) tui. The Maori name, Kowhai ngutu-kaka, literally means parrot-beaked kowhai (Sophora, another member of the pea family). 

Photo: Sandra Simpson

Lawrie Metcalf writes in The Cultivation of NZ Trees and Shrubs (Raupo, 2011) that kaka beak was introduced into gardens in England in 1831 with the first plants selling for the princely sum of £5. Oddly, given its endangered status in the wild, plants are widely available in garden centres in New Zealand with ‘Kaka King’ the trade name for C. maximus.

Lawrie also notes that while being shown around Sissinghurst Castle Garden – by Vita Sackville-West, no less – they came upon a C. puncieus ‘Albus’ growing in an urn on a pedestal. “Its position at eye level allowed the plant to be appreciated fully, and its situation in the light shade of some deciduous trees really highlighted the beauty of its white flowers.”

In cultivation C. maximus can grow up to to about 4m tall (6m in the wild) and C. 
puniceus about half that size. Common knowledge has it that they tend to be short-lived in the garden (2-4 years), although a prune after flowering will stimulate new growth and keep the plant going longer (hedgecutters are okay). However, Fiona Eadie, head gardener at Larnach Castle on the Otago Peninsula, says in her 2008 book, 100 Best Native Plants (Godwit), that a specimen there lasted 25 years surviving “moderately severe frosts and many a snowfall”. She emphasises a dry site above all and vigilance with chewing and sucking insects.

Otari Wilton’s Bush in Wellington has trained a Clianthus maximus against a trellis – one way of ensuring the flowers are shown off. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Glyn Church reports that he grew them well in the full blast of Wellington’s winds which seemed to keep pests at bay too.

The Plant Conservation network listing suggests siting plants in fertile, well-drained, sunny sites free from surrounding shrubs to combat pest and disease problems. Galls, caused by a mite, should be removed as soon as they appear.

Tree of the moment: Rewarewa

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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.

Our native plants: Spinifex

Spinifex sericeus is that small ‘tumbleweed’ commonly seen on North Island beaches during summer. It is a native sand-dune grass commonly seen on the seaward face of dunes through most of the North Island and the upper part of the South Island. It produces strong, long runners that creep across the dunes both above ground and under.

Spinifex seed heads found last summer on the ocean beach at Ohiwa. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Dune Restoration Trust website says spinifex is also called silvery sand grass or kowhangatara. “Where stands of spinifex are vigorous, runners will trail over recent erosion scarps caused by storms and high seas … [and] encourage the build-up of wind-distributed sand along the scarp and eventually a return to a low-angle dune face…”

The plant thrives in strong winds, salt spray, full sun, shifting sands and drought. Spinifex sericeus is also found in Australia.

Spinifex seed heads waiting to roll. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Spinifex plants are either male or female, the latter’s flowers being those tumbleweed seed-heads that are released in late summer. When the wind blows, they roll along the beach until they lodge against an obstacle, trap sand in their spines to bury the seeds which then have a chance to germinate. The Terrain website notes that seeds can also be carried by the tides and still germinate when they come to rest.

The always-informative Oratia Native Plant Nursery website says: “The individual sexes [of spinifex] can often cover huge areas of a beach, and it is not unusual to find all of one sex dominating an entire beach. The male flowers are erect spikelets producing masses of wind-blown pollen, while the female plants … form the distinctive spiny tumbleweed seen wheeling along the beach later in the season. Each spine contains a single seed at its base, but many are infertile, having not been pollinated. The miracle is how the female manages to collect the wind-blown pollen when the individual sexes are often at opposite ends of the beach, or even on separate beaches.”

This could be a male flower (upright) surrounded by female flowers, taken at the Tay St entrance to Mount Maunganui’s Main Beach. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Coastlands Plant Nursery at Whakatane, which is the national Dune Revegetation Centre, notes differences between spinifex plants from the east coast and the west coast even when grown in identical conditions in the nursery.

The entry for spinifex in The Cultivation of New Zealand Native Grasses by Lawrie Metcalf (Random House, 2008) mentions that spinifex lost much of its habitat to the introduced marram grass (Ammophila arenaria). However, it has transpired that marram grass created steep dunes more prone to wind erosion. Spinifex and its partner pingao (Desmoschoenus spiralis, another native) bind dunes in a lower profile.

Our native plants: Mountain cottonwood

Despite its common names of mountain cottonwood or silver heather, Ozmanthus vauvilliersii (formerly Cassinia vauvilliersii and also known as Ozothamnus leptophyllus) is found all over the place – my photo was taken on the walk from Eastbourne to Pencarrow lighthouse with the plant growing either side of the track which, for the first hour at least, is right beside Wellington Harbour.

The Hebe Society (based in the UK) lists it and I was certainly wondering if it was a hebe as I looked at it, something about the compact leaves. It’s almost redundant to say it copes with harsh conditions and copes with everything from snow to salt-spray (the track would easily be inundated in a good blow). A good plant for a dry garden.

Mountain cottonwood flowers from December to April, but this plant was photographed in July and had buds on it, as well as spent flower heads. Photo: Sandra Simpson.

In his book The Cultivation of New Zealand Trees and Shrubs (Raupo, 2011) Lawrie Metcalf says: “Five former species within the genus Cassinia, now reclassified as Ozmanthus, are so variable and have so few distinguishing characters that there has been a tendency to regard all of them as simply variants of just one species, O. leptophyllus … All parts of the shrub, including the flowers, have quite a strong scent.”

Known by Maori as tauhinu, the shrub is, Metcalf says, a good nurse plant for more tender, permanent plantings (just as gorse is too). Its growth is fairly rapid and so its life cycle reasonably short. Its range in New Zealand is from about northern Waikato to southern Marlborough. Massey University reports that it can be a weed problem for farmers in eastern districts.

But everything on the plant has its place and a chapter in The Biology of Wetas, King Crickets and their Allies (CABI Books, 2001), edited by L H Field, notes weta insects have a special relationship with tauhinu, with the weta found on plants at night throughout the year, and feeding on the new shoots and flowers. (Click on the ‘weta’ link to read more about these amazing insects.)

Our native plants: NZ iceplant

When you’re wandering along a seashore this summer you might spot some of our native iceplant (Disphyma austral syn. Mesembryanthemum australe, horokaka) – although it’s easily overlooked if there are any of the louder, brighter non-native iceplants in the vicinity.


Disphyma australe growing at Aramoana in Otago Harbour. The flowers aren’t fully open because it was an overcast day. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The flowers of this creeping groundcover are pink to white and smaller than those of the South African Carpobrotus edulis (described as “unwanted” by Biosecurity NZ). Found around most of the country and the larger offshore islands, it grows on rocky shores, as well as in dune areas and can tolerate a wide range of soils. Apparently our native iceplant isn’t fussy and in some places has hybridised with Carpobrotus edulis.

Lawrie Metcalf in his 2009 book Know Your New Zealand Native Plants (New Holland) records that Maori would squeeze out the juice from horokaka’s succulent-type leaves and apply it to boils and abscesses to reduce inflammation and draw out pus.

The Reverend Richard Taylor wrote in A Leaf from the Natural History of New Zealand in 1847 that ‘This plant produces an insipid fruit which can be eaten, and also the leaves which make a very good pickle’. (Reference source here, and the book appears to be available for free download here.)

Disphyma species are also found in Australia and South Africa.

Text and photos copyright Sandra Simpson and may not be reused without permission.


Brachyglottis greyi Sunshine

Dunedin Botanic Gardens are the oldest in the country and this year are celebrating 150 years of bringing pleasure to visitors.

The gardens were originally where the university is, but after a flood in 1868 washed away part of the gardens they moved to the present 28ha site between the campus and North East Valley. The flood-prone Waters of Leith has since been canalised but during our recent visit, my husband said he could remember it topping its high walls in the 1970s.

I’ve visited the gardens a couple of times in recent years and while they’re not as obviously outstanding as, say, Christchurch Botanic Gardens, which are also 150 this year, they do have a certain charm. I haven’t been in Dunedin during rhododendron season and this is a collection of plants for which the gardens are renowned (the International Rhododendron Conference will be in Dunedin in 2014).

Both my visits have been in summer and both times I’ve been slightly disappointed at the number of weeds in the large and interesting rock garden but have excused it on the basis that it’s holiday season for staff, just like it is for everyone else, and, who knows, it may be policy to let it be a little wild. (Councils have very particular policies about things like how often reserve lawns are mowed, how short the grass is to be and how often weeding is to be carried out.)


Brachyglottis greyi Sunshine. Photo: Sandra Simpson

This time we entered through a side gate that led into a native plant area and this was well worth seeing, even if all the plants weren’t named.

There were swathes of Brachyglottis greyi Sunshine in flower, huge bushes that really did look like sunshine on an overcast day. Sunshine is one of a set of Brachyglottis hybrids known as the “Dunedin Group”.

Lawrie Metcalf’s book The Cultivation of New Zealand Trees and Shrubs (Raupo, revised 2011) says that in the early part of the 20th century Otago (with Dunedin as the centre) was a prominent area for the cultivation of native plants with the botanic gardens leading the way.

However, crosses weren’t recorded and names weren’t kept and there is a lot of confusion as to what’s what among Brachyglottis. In 1980 a British publication coined the term Dunedin Group to cover the hybrids from crosses of B. greyi, compacta and laxifolia, and possibly monroi.

Summer Gold, Sunshine and Otari Cloud are three of the best known.