Know your kiwi ora:
Discover some native spoils from our neighbours across the ditch.
Discover native spoils from across the ditch.
Scientific name: Leptospermum scoparium. Etymology: Ol’ pal William Shakespeare once wrote, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” And the bard had a point: whether you call this plant manuka, kahikatoa or Captain Cook’s chosen moniker, tea tree, it’s still going to delight the senses with its cloud of delicately scented flowers and general loveliness. Description: Speaking of flowers, those sweet-smelling blooms are usually white or pink with short, dark red stamens (aka those bristly bits in the centre of the petals that produce all the pollen). They pop up along each woody branch between needle-like leaves and teeny capsules full of seeds that are blown off by the wind and dispersed so more plants can grow. Not that manuka needs a lot of help in that department: New Zealand farmers often see the shrub (or tree – it can grow up to 15 metres tall) as a pest, as it takes root and makes itself comfortable on freshly cleared land. Random facts: You’ve most likely heard of manuka honey – a sweet spread known for its (oft-debated) antibacterial properties. This by-product only became popular after European settlers arrived in New Zealand, though. Before that, the Maori people had a host of other uses for manuka. Different elements, from the seed pods to the bark and the sap, were turned into treatments for fevers, burns, constipation, sore eyes, colic, head colds and a whole bunch of other things. The firm-but-flexible wood was pretty darn handy as well, ideal for building canoes, paddles, hunting tools and even houses. When burnt, it gives off a sweet aroma that can make smoked meat and fish taste extra yum. And once Captain Cook and his cohort arrived, they brewed the leaves and twigs to make tea and beer – which (surprise, surprise) is where the name ‘tea tree’ came from.
Scientific name: Sophora microphylla. Etymology: In a classic case of doing what it says on the tin, kowhai literally means ‘yellow’ in Te Reo Maori. As for the scientific name, we have Latin wordsmiths to thank: microphylla alludes to the plant’s itty-bitty leaves (we can only assume ancient Romans followed this up with, “But don’t worry, it’s not the size that counts”). Description:
The most widespread species of kowhai (there are eight all up),
S. microphylla – or the weeping kowhai – isn’t too fussy about where it calls home. You can spot the evergreen looking lush all across New Zealand’s North and South Islands, from riverside forests to coastal cliffs and pockets of inland scrub. But how will you recognise it? Watch for clusters of drooping branches lined with the aforementioned tiny leaves. In spring you’ll also spot bright yellow, tubular flowers that stand out against the surrounding green. Random facts: When it comes to native flora, the kowhai is a bit of a Kiwi rock star – not only is it New Zealand’s unofficial national flower, it’s also had the honour of appearing on postage stamps and coins. While Maori communities use the plant to make dye and traditional medicines (kowhai bark can be turned into a drink for soothing internal pains and bruising, and the roots, flowers and juices can treat everything from ringworm to gonorrhoea and seal bites), it’s the local birds that just can’t get enough. Those golden blooms are stuffed to the brim with sweet and delicious nectar, a favourite snack of the tui, korimako (bellbird), kaka and kereru. The tui in particular will travel super-long distances for a taste of the sugary goop – but don’t be tempted to try it yourself, as the kowhai is actually poisonous for humans. Instead, admire its glory from a safe distance, especially in late winter, when its blooming flowers are said to mark the last frost of the season.
Scientific name: Cyathea dealbata. Etymology: A plant of many monikers, the silver fern also goes by the traditional Maori name
ponga. Meanwhile, dealbata means ‘whitened’ and cyathea comes from the Greek kyatheion, meaning ‘little cup’. Basically, the botanical name describes the bumpy white tissue that covers the fern’s leaves, but, you know, in fancy language. Description: Found throughout the North Island and the north-east coast of the South, the silver fern likes things warm and dry. (Turns out we have a lot in common with the iconic plant.) New Zealand is the only place in the world you’ll find the scaly tree fern, which features a trunk up to 10 metres tall, and long, elegant fronds that are green on one side and silver on the other (although slightly more on the white side for large, mature plants). The silvery colouring extends down to the frond stalks, as well, making the fern recognisable by its trunk alone. Random facts: Aside from looking fancy as heck, the colouring for which the silver fern is named has made it rather handy to have around. Maori hunters and warriors used the underside of the leaves to catch the moonlight and illuminate a path through the forest – basically, the plant existed as the ultimate eco-friendly torch. In fact, New Zealanders are such big fans of the fern that it’s been a symbol of the country’s national identity since the 1880s. Standing for strength, resistance and enduring power – not to mention, guiding a way through the dark – a curved frond can be spotted on the jerseys of many national sports teams and on the New Zealand coat of arms, and is also a long-time emblem for Kiwi troops and various trade and tourism bodies. Seriously, just check out a sporting roster to get a sense of how much they dig the leafy plant: the national netball, women’s cricket and women’s rugby teams are called the Silver Ferns, White Ferns and Black Ferns respectively.
Scientific name: Veronica salicifolia. Etymology: Sounding a little like a siren from the Golden Age of Hollywood, this bushy shrub was actually named for Saint Veronica – the helpful dame who supposedly passed her veil to Jesus so he could wipe his brow as he carried the cross through Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Maori folks use the name koromiko for all the plants in the Hebe genus (this is interchangeable with kokomuka, korokio and
kokoromiko). Description: Go for a trundle around New Zealand’s South Island and you may well spot a willow-leaf hebe doing its thing, anywhere from sea level right up into the mountains. (The only other place you’ll find it is in Chile, where it’s thought to have been carried by an ocean-hopping seabird.) The shrub sports widespread foliage made up of narrow, greeny-yellow, oblong-shaped leaves – when it flowers in summer and autumn, the blooms are long and droopy with lots of white or purple buds clustered along the willowy lengths. Random facts: The willow-leaf hebe and its cousins, Hebe stricta and Hebe elliptica, should perhaps be awarded a medal for their service to the country. During World War II, dried leaves were sent to New Zealand troops to treat dysentery and other stomach disorders. (The leaf tips could be chewed or steeped in water and sipped like a bitter, floral tea.) The leaves had a number of other nifty uses, too: they acted as a dressing for wounds and ulcers, were soaked in water for a mouthwash or gargle, and could even help stop heavy bleeding, thanks to their highly astringent tannins. But it isn’t just soldiers who have benefited from the native plant – New Zealand’s insect population is pretty chuffed with it as well. Beetles, flies and bees dine out on its pollen and nectar, and in fact, boffins have found that its potent sap “significantly increases” the fitness of female butterflies. Sure beats a trip to the gym.
Scientific name: Metrosideros excelsa. Etymology: Unsurprisingly, the scientific name is a mix of Ancient Greek and Latin: Metrosideros refers to the ‘iron heartwood’ – aka the very dense, dark red, inner part of the tree trunk – while excelsa, from excelsus, sings the plant’s lofty praises, meaning ‘highest’ or ‘sublime’. As for
pohutukawa, there are a number of interpretations of the Maori word. One translates to ‘splashed by the spray’ – a reference to the fact the tree often thrives on coastal cliffs, despite being thrashed by salty winds. Description: Like Australia’s bottlebrush, the pohutukawa is a member of the myrtle family, and it shares other similarities with its cousin from across the ditch, as well. In summer, spiky red flowers burst into life among its long, leathery leaves (if you’re lucky, you might be able to spot a pink or yellow version). When Christian settlers first arrived in the country they were impressed by the showy crimson blooms, and used them in place of holly to decorate their festive hearths. The habit quickly stuck, earning the plant the title of ‘New Zealand’s Christmas tree’ – these days, you’ll often spot the pohutukawa on holiday greeting cards. Random facts: Long before folks arrived from Europe, though, the pohutukawa held a place in Maori lore. Its flowers are said to represent the blood of a young warrior who died while attempting to avenge his father’s death – meanwhile, a gnarled, wind-beaten, 800-year-old tree near Te Rerenga Wairua at New Zealand’s northern tip is thought to be the portal where spirits of the dead enter the underworld to return to their ancestral homeland. On a practical level, the pohutukawa’s hard, durable timber has long been used in ship-building, while nectar from the flowers is an old Maori remedy for a sore throat. The tree – which, in truth, has been labelled an invasive weed for its tendency to oust other natives – has one main nemesis: hungry possums.