August in the hills with Chris Horne and Michele Dickson
Astelia solandri, kōwharawhara, perching astelia
Plants in the genus Astelia, like the plants mentioned in the first paragraph in the article on tūrutu/blueberry, are monocotyledons. This means that each seed produces one seed-leaf/cotyledon, not two. Thus the leaves have a similar form to those of tūrutu, i.e., long and narrow. Perching astelia is endemic and a member of the lily family.
Origin of the names
Astelia comes from the Greek words ‘a’ without, a ‘stele’ pillar, meaning ‘lacking a stem’; ‘solandri’ refers to Daniel Carl Solander, (1733-1782), Swedish botanist on Capt. Cook’s first voyage. The Te Reo name for the plant is ‘kōwharawhara’; ‘perching astelia’ is usually epiphytic, meaning that it often grows on another plant.
Distribution and habitat
Kōwharawhara grows on Te Ika a Māui/North Island and on Te Waipounamu/South Island, in wetter lowland forests as far as south Westland. Look for it growing on a tree, or sometimes on a bank, a rock, or even the forest floor.
Perching astelia is a robust, evergreen, perennial, herbaceous plant which resembles a small flax plant. The densely tufted leaves, 100-200 cm long x 2-3.5 cm wide, droop and at the base are tightly folded and covered with a fine whitish down. Their upper sides are bright green; their undersides are silvery. The mnemonic ‘s’ for ‘solandri’-‘s’ for ‘silver’ may help you - we find it useful! On either side of the midrib look for three less prominent ribs. Thin, grey, dead leaves hang from the plant’s base.
You will see big clumps of kōwharawhara perching on tree trunks or branches. It is classed as a ‘nest epiphyte’. It establishes extensive root systems among mosses and lichens in a branch forks or on a branch. As old roots die and decay, a spongy soil develops and absorbs rain water. This combined with water which collects at the leaves’ narrowed bases means that the plant can become very heavy. Beware – these often massive plants, and their supporting branches, may fall, hence their nick-name ‘widow(er)-maker’.
The many small, yellowish to maroon flowers, called tākahakaha, are sweetly scented. They appear October to June. Female and male flowers appear on separate plants. The many flowers crowd together to form an inflorescence 15-40 cm long which droops on a stalk/peduncle 30-100 cm long x 4-8 mm wide. Between January and December, the female flowers produce small, spherical berries, 4-5 mm in diameter, which vary from translucent green to yellowish brown. The seeds are less than 2 mm long, shiny and smooth.
Māori women used the silk-like down derived from the leaves’ outer membrane to decorate their hair and faces. It was also used to cover burns and scalds, and as padding under tōtara-bark splints used on broken bones. The leaves were waved during incantations for sick people, and people being tattooed. The leaves were wrapped around their feet in cold weather, and used for making shallow baskets. The fruit on female perching astelias are edible.
Oil derived from the seeds has been promoted as a potential treatment for multiple sclerosis, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. In summer, bees and flies seek the nectar.
Where to find Astelia solandri?
You can see kōwharawhara in Wellington Botanic Garden, Otari-Wilton’s Bush, other Wellington reserves and in Hutt Valley reserves. It also grows in the Tararua, Remutaka and Aorangi ranges.