Wharangi – Melicope ternata

IMG_0084.JPGWharangi belongs to the citrus family, and its leaves are studded with oil glands. When the leaves are crushed, they produce a familiar lemony-orange scent. Maori would chew the IMG_0083gum of Wharangi as a cure for bad breath, as it sweetens and refreshes the mouth. The gum would also be used to produce sweet smelling hair oils and perfumes.

There are conflicting reports about its toxicity. The leaves were once thought to be poisonous, but rats fed on a diet of Wharangi leaves were unharmed. Several sources claim that eating honey made from the nectar will result in immediate death.

Want to learn more about Wharangi?

Nga tipu whakaoranga: Maori plant use database
New Zealand Plant Conservation Network

Photo Credits: Robert Vennell

Bush Lawyer – Rubus cissoides


Bush lawyer – Tataramoa – is New Zealand’s answer to blackberry, a scrambling thorny climber studded with sharp backwards-curved hooks. Unlike blackberry however, Bush Lawyer can be found in the middle of the forest, snaring unsuspecting trampers in dense spiky tangles. Once it grabs hold of you, it’s unlikely to let go – presumably the rationale behind its curious English name.BushLawyer

Despite the anguish it causes, Bush Lawyer has proved itself a useful and practical plant. Europeans were quick to spot the resemblance with wild blackberry and used the fruit to make stews, preserves and jams. The large thick vines can be cut and drained to produce a juice-like beverage, a valuable source of liquid in a survival situation.

Maori also made use of the fruit, but more important were the bark and leaves which were used in a number of herbal remedies. Infusions were used to treat sore throats, chest complaints, stomach aches and diarrhoea. A vapour bath of the leaves and roots was used as a cleansing remedy after childbirth to assist with removal of the placenta.


Want to learn more about Bush Lawyer?

Nga Tipu Whakaoranga; Maori Plant Use Database
New Zealand Plant Conservation Network

Whau – Entelea arborescens


Whau is immediately distinctive in the New Zealand forest; with its large floppy heart-shaped leaves and spiky bommy knocker seeds. It produces one of the lightest woods in the world, and as such was a valuable resource for Maori. The seeds and wood could be used as floats for fishing nets and marker buoys. The trunks were also lashed together with supplejack to construct small rafts for hunting crayfish. 1024px-Whau_(Entelea_arborescens)_seed_pods

The plant was of such value to Maori that it was actively cultivated in some places. The Maori name of Auckland’s iconic Mt. Eden is Maungawhau “The Mountain of the Whau Tree” and in the past its slopes would have been covered in Whau, providing a constant supply of fishing material.

Whau is a true pioneer species.  When a gap opens in the forest it pops up instantaneously, racing through its life cycle before succumbing to old age at 10 years old. It does this by flooding the environment with long-lived seeds. These lie dormant in the soil, waiting for the opportune moment to breach the surface and begin the next mad dash to reproduction.
Sydney Parkinson Drawing - Whau

Want to learn more about Whau?

Nga Tipu Whakaoranga; Maori Plant Use Database
New Zealand Plant Conservation Network

Tawa – Beilschimedia tawa

Tawa Forest - Edin Whitehead.jpg

History & Culture

The long willow-like branches of Tawa have stolen the lives of many Kereru in their time. Maori hunters would climb great trees, carrying with them immense Tawa lances – sometimes greater than 10 metres long. Slowly, carefully, they would inch the lances closer and closer to their prey until at the final moment they would the thrust them through the heart of the bird. These spears were prized possessions, crafted over many years and handed down through the generations.  The spear-points were often made with the sharpened thigh bone of slain enemies, or – for the priveleged few – delicately carved out of pounamu.BeilschmiediaTawaKing.jpg

As well as providing Kereru, Tawa was an incredibly important source of food in its own right. Tawa is in the same family as Avocado – and has a familiar large berry with green flesh and a hard kernel. The soft flesh of the berry can be eaten, but perhaps more important was the kernel which could be boiled, roasted or steamed in hangi. The cooked kernels kept remarkably well and could store for years, making them an incredibly valuable standby food in case of difficult times.  They were a staple food source for iwi such as Tuhoe.

The importance of the food to Maori can be measured by its incorporation into traditional proverbs. It was often said that noisy children resemble tawa fires – “Ko te ahi tawa hai whakarite” – as the kernels would crack, hiss and pop. The ripe flesh of the berry was compared with a coward, while the solid kernel became a symbol of strength and heroism:

He tawa para! He whati kau tana! – The pulp of the tawa berry is easily crushed.
Ka mahi te tawa uho kit e riri – Well done, tawa kernel fighting away.

Kereru-KapitiAlthough Tawa may have snared the lives of many Kereru – it now depends on them for its own survival. Prior to the arrival of humans in New Zealand, the large Tawa berries would have been eaten and dispersed by a variety of birds such as Moa and Kakapo. However the arrival of humans and mammals precipitated one of the most catastrophic extinctions of birds the world has seen, with over 40% of bird species driven extinct. Today, Kereru is one of the only surviving birds with a mouth large enough to eat the seeds and spread them around the forest.


Other than spear-making and food, Tawa was often used medicinally as well. A brew from the bark was used to treat stomach aches and colds. Tuhoe would mix this brew with Rimu and Tutu as a decoction for wounds. Tawa was used by European settlers aswell and it proved to be a useful timber tree, with a soft wood that was used to make fences and houses.


Want to learn more about Tawa?
Nga Tipu Whakaoranga; Maori Plant Use Database
New Zealand Plant Conservation Network

Photo Credit: Edin Whitehead, Tawa Forest. All other images are in the public domain.

Lord of the Trees: The Botany of Middle Earth

596d1dcec6645f268551ad3613053451For many people around the world, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy put New Zealand on the map. The sweeping panorama shots of snow-topped mountains, remote tussock grasslands and wild untamed forests worked like an extended tourism video, and visitors flocked to the country in record numbers. However with such a huge emphasis on the spectacular scenery there is an important character in the films that often goes unnoticed – the plants.

The forests and plants of the New Zealand landscape feature prominently in the film, and although they remain silent (for the most part) they play an important supporting role. This article will explore the native, exotic and imaginary plants that make up Middle Earth.

The Shire; A Weed-infested Hobbit Hole


JRR Tolkien’s vision of The Shire was an idyllic English countryside of pastures, trees and wild flowers. However recreating this vision on the other side of the world means that The Shire is one of the weediest places in middle earth. Located in the heart of New Zealand’s Dairy country – the shire is a highly modified exotic environment, with introduced pasture grasses, pine trees, poplars and willow.

It is also home to some of the worst invasive weeds in the country. When Frodo and Sam first set off on their journey they are knee deep in Wandering Willie – a prolific weed that completely swamps the forest undergrowth and prevents any native plants from growing.


Later on as Arwen and Frodo are pursued by a host of Ringwraiths on the outskirts of the shire, they dodge through a field of Wilding Pines. These are species that have escaped forest plantations and become ‘feral’, aggressively colonising native habitat. Wilding pine numbers are currently exploding in the south island, endangering native plants, damaging farmland and threatening to turn the wild tussock landscape into a sea of exotic pines.


One of the only natives you will see in The Shire is Totara, a hardy plant that has been able to compete in this environment as its spiky leaves are not eaten by stock. However, even Totara has a weedy personality, and some farmers treat it as a weed despite its native status.

Life’s a Beech


Once the fellowship leaves the bounds of the Shire the plant life begins to change, as exotic pine trees give way to Southern Beech forest. This is the most abundant forest in Middle Earth, as it is in New Zealand. Many of the film’s most memorable scenes are shot in Beech forest, from the elvish city of Lothlorien, to the forests of Fangorn, and the Anduin river where the fellowship are pursued by Urukhai


Southern beech forests often have few plants growing in the understorey – which make them perfect for running away from orcs – and the small leaves let a dappled light shine through to the forest floor, creating a magical, elvish atmosphere.

The War of the Roses; March of the Ents

JRR Tolkien has a strong thread of environmentalism in his work – and Lord of the Rings was a favourite of the hippie movement of the 1960s.  These themes can be seen throughout the movies as well, from the idyllic farming practices of the hobbits, to the sustainable horticulture of the elves and even the wild feralculture of the ents.

But nowhere are these ideas more pronounced than the story of the war between Saruman and the ents. Initially, Saruman is a good steward of the land, walking through the tamed gardens of Wellington’s Harcourt Park. But Saruman becomes lured by greed and power, exploiting the land of its resources, polluting earth and sky in his attempt to industrialize middle earth.


In the end however, the balance of nature is restored. Treebeard calls a council of the ents to war, recapturing Isengard and flooding its dark and dingy corners with life and greenery once more.

lotr2-movie-screencaps.com-18563-ent council

As for the ents themselves, the filmmakers stuck with Tolkien’s original European vision, and they resemble trees such as English beech, chestnut, oak and ash. But the gnarled and twisted forest they call home is located in Fiordland, South Island and is distinctively New Zealand Southern Beech.

Thanks to movie-screencaps.com for providing the Lord of the Rings images.
If you have any other botanical musings on the lord of rings films make sure to comment below.

Forgotten Flora

Forgotten Flora - Ramina Rai

For the most part, promoting conservation in New Zealand is pretty easy. We have some of the most incredible, charismatic, cute and fluffy creatures in the world – they pretty much sell themselves. As a matter of fact, one of our birds – Sirocco the Kākāpō – went viral after shagging a cameraman’s head and has since been recognised by the New Zealand government as our Official Spokesbird for Conservation (@Spokesbird).

While it’s not hard for kiwis to get excited about our rare and unique bird life – what about our rare and endangered plants? Less fluffy and less likely to star in viral shagging videos; our rare plants receive nowhere near as much attention as their feathered counterparts. And yet they also include some of the most fascinating and bizarre life forms in New Zealand. In this article, we shine a spotlight on some of these unsung botanical wonders. Many of the plants in this list are in rapid decline, some barely holding onto existence in the face of plagues of introduced pests. But if we can bring the plight of these little known plants to greater awareness then we may be able to do more to stem the tide of extinction.
Dactylanthus - Ramina Rai
Wood Rose – Dactylanthus taylorii

The Māori name for Wood Rose is Pua o te Reinga “The flower of the underworld” – and it’s an incredibly apt name. Its bizarre finger-like flowers emerge out of the ground like a zombie corpse, bursting from its shallow grave in search of brains. That isn’t too far from the truth actually, as it is the only fully parasitic flowering plant in New Zealand. That means it’s completely given up its ability to make its own food through photosynthesis and must leach off other plants to survive.  It does this via a creepy tentacle-like appendage that penetrates the roots of its host, sucking it dry of food, water and nutrients. This withers and distorts the host root, moulding into the shape of a macabre wooden flower – the wood rose. Human collectors are one of the major threats Wood Rose, digging it up in search of these bizarre floral displays and selling them on the black market.

Cook’s Scurvy Grass – Lepidium spp.
Scurvy Grass - Ramina Rai
In the 1700s, scurvy was the plague of sailors everywhere – rotting out gums and causing death by bleeding out. When Captain Cook first arrived in New Zealand he collected as much Scurvy Grass as he could fit in his boat – the high Vitamin C content providing the perfect remedy for his ailing crew. Nowadays you would be hard pressed to find any scurvy grass along our coasts, it has been hammered by a suite of introduced pests; rats, snails, aphids, moths, cattle and fungal diseases. And yet it hangs on in a few places due to an ingenious life strategy. It thrives in the burrows and nests of sea birds which provide the perfect environment – disturbing the soil just the right amount and dumping loads of fresh fertilizer. When it’s ready to reproduce it simply glues its seeds to the birds’ feathers, providing guaranteed safe passage to the next dung-filled hovel. 

King Fern – Ptisana salicina

This massive sprawling fern is one of our largest and most impressive, with fronds that can reach 5 m long. One of its biggest threats comes from wild pigs – these greedy predators will eat everything they can find above ground, then sniff out food below ground and eat that as well. Unfortunately for the king fern – its other name is ‘potato fern’ due to its delicious starchy root, and pigs will tear apart the ground in search of it. This “potato” was a traditional food source for Māori, it was cultivated in gardens and regarded as a delicacy. Plant-collectors have also been captivated by the plant, but unfortunately their over-enthusiasm has led to it becoming extinct in some regions. King fern is now mostly found in caves or on the sides of cliffs where pigs, goats, and humans can’t get to it.
Kakabeak - Ramina Rai

Kakabeak – Clianthus spp.

Kakabeak looks like Kōwhai’s forgotten evil twin brother – the cheerful bright yellow flowers being replaced with startling blood red. For Māori these flowers resembled the beak of the forest parrot – Kākā. The plant was grown in gardens, used as gifts or bartered away in trade and is still popular in gardens today as a result of its “lobster claw” flowers and edible seeds. In the wild however, it’s a totally different story. The plant is being assaulted with extinction threats from all sides, burned by fire, starved by drought and eaten by animals. It grows in open exposed habitats such as cliff slopes, which are very unstable and become choked out with weed species. If that wasn’t enough, weed controllers trying to protect Kakabeak have been known to spray it by mistake.

Three Kings Kaikomako – Pennantia baylisiana

Three Kings Kaikomako holds the Guinness World record for being the rarest plant in the world – there is only a single tree left in the wild. Hordes of invasive goats stripped Three Kings Island bare of Kaikomako, until this single individual remained, clinging on to a steep scree slope where the goats couldn’t reach. The plant was first discovered by goat hunters in the 1940s and since then has been ravaged by storms and drought, destroying branches and even whole trunks. For all intents and purposes the plant was considered functionally extinct – with no other plants to cross with, the future was bleak. However researchers were able to induce the plant into producing seeds on its own and now it’s available around the country in garden centres.

This article was first printed in Debate Magazine. Illustrations by Ramina Rai

Want to find out more about threatened plants in New Zealand and what’s being done to save them? Some great places to start are the Auckland Botanic Gardens & The New Zealand Flora Seed Bank

Supplejack – Ripogonum scandens


History & Culture

The thick black scrambling vines of Supplejack – Kareao – are a distinctive feature of the New Zealand rainforest. In Maori tradition, the vines grew from the tail of the monstrous eel god – Tunaroa. When Maui’s wife Raukura was gathering water from a stream, Tunaroa knocked her over with his giant tail and insulted her. In revenge, Maui ambushed Tunaroa – hacking him to pieces with this axe. The blood of Tunaroa was spattered across the birds such as Pukeko and Kakariki, and plants such as Toa Toa, Rimu, Totara & Matai giving them their distinctive red colouring. Tunaroa’s dismembered head was thrown into the sea to give rise to marine eels, while the tail gave rise to the freshwater eels. The very tip of the tail took root in the forest to become the Supplejack vine, which from then on was used to construct eel traps.

Dense thickets of Supplejack provide an almost impenetrable barrier to moving about in the bush. Anyone who is familiar with tramping off-track in New Zealand is likely to be familiar with the peculiar form of bush-yoga that is required to navigate through them. The trials of contending with Supplejack were also faced by the first Europeans to arrive in New Zealand. While anchored in Dusky Sound, Captain James Cook wrote in his journal;

In many parts the woods are so over-run with supplejacks, that it is scarcely possible to force one’s way amongst them. I have seen several which were fifty or sixty fathoms long.”


Despite the anguish it causes to trampers, Supplejack has proved itself an incredibly useful and practical plant. It was an important medicinal plant for Maori, and an infusion of the root was used to treat blood disorders, skin diseases, rheumatism, fever, bowel complaints and sexually transmitted diseases. There are even some reports that the decoction was drunk by pregnant women in order to cause an abortion. The shoots were eaten to treat scabies & itchiness, and sap from the broken stem was applied to cuts and grazes. For larger wounds, a piece of dry Kareao was ignited and burned near the cut to cauterise the wound.IMG_0473.JPG

The tough, pliable, woody stem provided an excellent construction material and was used
to make baskets and bind fences, houses, canoes and platforms. The sturdy vines made excellent pots, traps and nets for catching crayfish, eels and fish such as kokopu. It was also hollowed out and made into musical instruments such as trumpets and bullroarers.

The bright red flesh of the berry was eaten, however a more important food source would have been the soft growing shoots. Affectionately known as “bush asparagus” these shoots taste like green beans and provide an excellent thirst-quenching snack. However, it is essential that they are identified correctly. Recently a tramper in the Waitakere ranges confused the shoots with the growing tips of Tutu – one of the deadliest plants in the New Zealand bush. Luckily he survived, but the neurotoxin caused such violent convulsions that they dislocated his shoulder.

Short-fin Eel photograph courtesy of DOC. Supplejack images: Robert Vennell.
All other images occur in the public domain.