September in the forest with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe
Ripogonum scandens, Kareao, Supplejack
There must be very few trampers who haven't cursed supplejack sometime on a tramp! In many a lowland forest, well below the bushline, you have probably tripped over its conspicuous, black, thumb-thick, entangled stems. Most of these stems reach right up into the canopy.
In the canopy their leaves, tiny greenish flowers and bright red fruit attractive to birds, hang on thin stems, up to 1 m long. Down on the forest floor, you sometimes see knee-high supplejack seedlings, with a few leaves on thin, dark stems. These grow into supple, succulent, brown stems with asparagus-like tips that move about in the wind. When they touch another plant, e.g. a sapling or tree, the cells on the side of the supplejack stem opposite those making contact with the potential support plant, are stimulated to elongate. This response enables the supplejack to begin winding around the support plant, climbing towards the sunlight.
People have found numerous uses for supplejack stems, - rope-ladders for climbing cliffs, hīnaki (eel-traps), lashings to bind tree-fern trunks for whare walls, food-storage baskets, cradles and walking-frames for young children, stretchers for injured trampers, and yes, even emergency pack frames! Medicinal uses for the sap include wound treatment. Elsdon Best, in 1905-07, reported that, “The water which exudes freely from a broken young shoot is applied to wounds”.
Supplejack, a New Zealand endemic, twining climber, is a member of a small genus with relatives in Australia and New Guinea. It occurs in the North, South, Stewart, and Chatham islands, usu- ally in valley bottoms and other moist sites — often with nikau — if the climate is not too cold. The ‘u’ in the name is pronounced as in ‘supple’.