April in the forest with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe
Pennantia corymbosa, Kaikōmako,
Kaikōmako’s small, black, fleshy fruit, which appear in autumn, are a food source for bellbirds, also known as kōmako, or korimako. The first part of the botanical name is derived from the name of a Scottish botanist, T. Pennant, and the second part relates to the way the flowers around the margins of the multi-flowered inflorescence open first.
Kaikōmako, a canopy tree that grows up to c. 12 m tall, with a trunk up to c. 50 cm diameter, is endemic to New Zealand. It is found in coastal and lowland-forest margins to 600 m a.s.l., from near Kaitaia southwards in the North Island, and throughout the South Island. Juvenile kaikōmako have slender, flexible, closely interlacing, zigzag branchlets. This “divaricating” habit is a feature of c.13% of New Zealand’s woody plant species, a high proportion compared with the floras of other countries. The tiny leaves, 7-15 x 5-10 mm, on these juvenile plants, are shaped like a duck’s foot.
Once the plant becomes a few metres high, the divaricating branching is replaced by a more open branching form, bearing leaves c. 5 x 3 cm, that usually have lobes toward the apex. In spring, clusters of small, fragrant flowers appear on the ends of the branchlets. The flowers do not produce nectar, but night-flying moths take the pollen, as do flies during the day.
A wide variety of Māori legends exists about how Māui stole fire from Māhuika, who in her rage at him concealed fire, and the secrets of fire-making in the timbers of kaikōmako, māhoe and patē trees. Māori learnt that kaikōmako is a very hard wood. To start making a fire, they used a stick of dead, sound, dry kaikōmako and rubbed it vigorously back and forth in a piece of dead, dry māhoe, or patē, both soft woods.
One of the McDonald series of early NZ movies showed a Māori couple in Te Urewera, c.1920, one using a bow-drill with a kaikōmako spindle rotated vigorously in a dry log, while the other blew gently as the first signs of smoke arose from the log, then added dry grass as the tinder.
Were you one of those TTC club members at the memorable meeting on 21 October 2008, when Steven Kohler, a member of the Wellington Tramping and Mountaineering Club, showed us his video of fire-making without matches or a lighter, then demonstrated the method outside the clubrooms on the car park? He first wielded his kaikōmako stick hard and fast, to produce a smouldering groove in the māhoe. Then he swiftly gouged out the hot, smoking, carbonised wood, placed it in a 15-cm diameter woven flax basket already half full with scales from mamaku tree fern. With the basket on a metre-long string, he whirled it around furiously while we all waited, agog! Soon, to our amazement and delight, smoke began to pour from the basket, then, as a thrilling finale, the basket burst into flame. Māori must have arrived at this ingenious fire- making method, by experimenting over many generations. It shows how dependent some early humans were on the combination of a hard wood and a soft wood, to enable them to cook and keep warm.