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.
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).
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.
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.