Forgotten Flora

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.

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.


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 – Clianthus spp.


Kakabeak looks like Kōwhai’s forgotten evil twin – 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.

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

This article was first printed in Debate Magazine.
Header photo courtesy of Edin Whitehead.
Cook’s Scurvy Grass Photo courtesy of Esther Dale.


2 thoughts on “Forgotten Flora

  1. Hi Robert, love your blog! I’ve just come across it as I’ve been researching for my masters (in fine arts – painting) project. I’m working with the land and our beautiful podcarp forests here in NZ. Your photographs are great! Specially love the one at the top of this page. I have some information about my project here if you’re interested to check it out. 🙂 Amanda


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