May in the hills with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe
Hedycarya arborea, Pigeonwood, porokaiwhiri
'Hedy carya' means 'sweet seed', 'arborea' is tree-like; 'poro' means ball, 'kai' is food, and 'whiri' is a flock of birds, hence the plant's fruit is the source of its Māori and common names.
There are about twenty members of the genus Hedycarya in Polynesia, New Caledonia and eastern Australia. Our species is endemic to New Zealand. It grows in lowland to montane forest on the Three Kings and North Island, and in the South Island as far south as Banks Peninsula in the east, and Fiordland in the west. Pigeonwood is shade-tolerant and usually grows in moist sites such as damp gullies.
Have you ever savoured the beautiful scent of the male flowers of pigeonwood? Surely it is one of the more memorable perfumes in the bush? It may seem surprising that a tree that often grows to 10 m tall with a trunk up to 50 cm diameter can produce such olfactory pleasure. Pigeonwood is dioecious, meaning that its male and female flowers are on separate trees. When the short-lived, pale yellow, 1 cm in diameter male flowers (pictured right) fall to the forest floor, notice how furry they are. Once pollinated, the female flowers produce clusters of bright-orange-red, 'beaked' fruit, 8 – 15 mm long, keenly sought and devoured by birds.
The bark, grey to dark brown, often gives rise to epicormic (suckering) shoots, just like tree fuchsia and māhoe. The darkish-green, shiny, leathery, leaves, 5 – 12 cm by 2 – 5 cm are mostly in opposite pairs on the branchlets, often slightly serrate towards the tip and hairy on the midrib and main veins. Look at the midrib - it is usually brownish-red, a useful diagnostic feature.
Māori made use of the excellent resonant qualities of porokaiwhiri wood to make a variety of musical instruments. It was fashioned into pahū (drums or gongs), and an instrument called pūrerehua (bull-roarer). Pākuru, a percussion instrument, comprised two porokaiwhiri rods, the longer one held in the mouth with one hand while the shorter rod tapped out a rhythm on it with the other hand. Meanwhile the performer sometimes mouthed the words of the song, producing higher or lower tones, by closing or opening his/her lips. Titi, the batons used in tititorea (stick-games), were made from pigeonwood.
A fire-stick of porokaiwhiri was sometimes chosen to light a sacred fire in which to burn the first hair cut from a child's head. The head was regarded as sacred, so the hair could be used as an agent for good or evil, thus it was deliberately destroyed by burning, ensuring that no one could use it for evil purposes (mākutu).