June in the forest with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe
Alectryon excelsus, Tītoki
You can often spot a tītoki trunk from a distance by its almost black colour, and when you get close, you can feel its slightly rough texture. The dark green, pointed leaflets, each about 7 cm long, usually have serrated edges, and are arranged in pairs along the stalk, with a single leaflet at the end. This foliage is highly palatable to browsing animals such as possums, which can easily kill a tree by defoliating it. Tītoki grow in lowland sites with fertile soil and a reasonably warm climate, where they can reach to well over 10 m in height.
A NZ endemic, tītoki extend from North Cape, to Banks Peninsula and Westland.
Pendulous clusters of tiny, deep red flowers are followed by curiously shaped, woody, brown capsules which take about a year to mature. When they open, they reveal what looks like a scarlet raspberry (it's called an aril), topped by a shiny black seed about 1 cm long.
Māori observed that birds flocked to feed on tītoki in season, and after gorging on these succulent arils, nearly always drank water. So choosing a tītoki with a good crop of arils, hunters would secure in its branches, tiny wooden troughs like canoes, filled with water. Attached around the troughs were finely plaited snares which were activated by a hunter hidden nearby, ready to tug the draw-string.
Like many plants in our flora, tītoki has medicinal (rongoā) properties which were known to Māori, and the fragrant oil, when refined by a laborious process, was used as an unguent and a perfume.