July in the hills with Michele Dickson and Chris Horne
Dianella nigra, tūrutu, NZ blueberry, ink berry
The genus Dianella shares features found in numerous other genera of native plants, including the five species of cabbage tree (Cordyline Australis and Cordyline banksii and Cordyline indivisa), the two flaxes (Phormium tenax and Phormium cookianum), the seventeen species of astelia, and rengarenga lily. Dianella, like all these species, and many other native species, is a monocotyledon meaning that each seed produces one seed-leaf/cotyledon, not two. Formerly classified within the lily family Liliaceae, taxonomists have since placed it in the family Xanthorroeaceae. Dianella nigra is endemic and is a plant you often see in the hills. Note: The Dianella genus is widespread in the Southern Hemisphere. There are about three non-native species of Dianella in cultivation.
Origin of the names
Dianella means ‘little Diana’, from the Latin ‘Diana’, the Roman goddess of the woods, hunting and the moon; nigra means black. ‘Blueberry’ indicates the colour of the fruit; ‘ink-berry’ refers to the ink-like juice produced when a fruit is squeezed.
Distribution and habitat
Tūrutu is present on Manawatawhi/Three Kings Islands, Te Ika a Māui/North Island, and Te Waipounamu/South Island. Look for it in light or semi-shaded forest, in fern lands, on banks, track edges, forest floor, and sometimes swampy ground, at elevations up to 1100 m.
Tūrutu is an evergreen perennial herb. The plants resemble miniature flax plants, growing to 0.8 m high and spreading to 1 m. The leaf bases fold over each other in two rows forming fans, several together making a small clump. The short rhizome/root can sprout young plants 10 cm or more from the parent. The leaves are 250-800 mm long x 12-18 mm wide, mostly light green, and have a reddish sheath at the base. The leaves are tough but not rigid, glossy above and dull beneath, with fine veins. The folded part of the leaf forms a keel. Run your index finger along the edges of an adult leaf, and along the mid-rib on the underside - they may feel slightly rough.
Tūrutu flowers, with female and male parts, appear from November to December. They grow on long, much branched, narrow spidery stalks. The fruits appear from December to May. The flowers are greenish white, 9-11 mm in diameter, opening early each day, with the innermost petal-like segments becoming recurved. The fruits/berries are 8-20 mm x 7-10 mm, globose to oblong, ranging from grey-white and dull to bright violet-blue and glossy. If squeezed, an ink-like juice appears. Each fruit contains about six small, shiny black seeds. The fruits are eaten by native birds.
Tūrutu leaves were used as pepe/bird calls by Māori fowlers. They folded a leaf into a tube, then blew through the leaf to produce a loud noise to attract birds. Blueberry, a popular garden bedding plant, is sold by some plant nurseries. Caution: The berries are considered to be poisonous.
Where to find tūrutu
Look for it in Otari-Wilton’s Bush, the Remutaka and Tararua ranges and the Eastbourne and Hutt hills, particularly in places with light overhead cover. It is present, but not common, in the Aorangi Range.