September in the hills with Michele Dickson and Chris Horne
Astelia fragrans, kakaha, bush lily
Astelia fragrans is another of the three commonly found species of Astelia in the Wellington region. Unlike A. solandri, described in the July Tramper, this species does not perch - it grows only on the ground.
Origin of the names
As stated last month, Astelia comes from the Greek words ‘a’ without, a ‘stele’ pillar, meaning ‘lacking a stem’; ‘fragrans’ means fragrant, referring to the sweet scent of the flowers. ‘Bush lily’ indicates that kakaha was once placed in the Liliaceae family. Taxonomists have since reassigned it to the closely related Asteliaceae family.
Distribution and habitat
Kakaha is endemic to New Zealand. It grows on Te Ika a Māui/North Island, Te Waipounamu/South Island and on Rakiura/Stewart Island, in coastal to lower montane areas. It is rare in the northern half of the North Island. Look for it on wet boggy ground and on dry hillsides, mostly in forest or forest remnants.
Bush lily is an evergreen, perennial, herbaceous plant with a robust tufted appearance occurring as a single plant or in colonies, sometimes on hillsides. The leaves are 50 cm-250 cm long x 2.5 cm-7.5 cm wide, the lower half rising stiffly, the upper part drooping with the ends becoming very drawn out and narrow. The leaf bases are keeled, but not tightly folded. The upper sides of the leaves are green and smooth with one strong rib, sometimes reddish, on each side of the midrib. The undersides have prominent ribs/nerves, wider than the midrib, and are a slightly lighter green than the upper sides.
The arrangement of the flowers/inflorescence is erect and broad. The stout stalk/peduncle grows from the middle of the tuft in October to November, producing many small fragrant flowers. The male flowers are greenish fawn and the female flowers are dark green. On the female plants, the flowers develop into subglobose, fleshy orange fruits 4-9 mm x 4-9 mm, from December to May. Fruits are eaten by fruit-eating animals, e.g., birds, geckos and skinks which disperse the seeds.
Māori used kakaha, mixed with kiekie, flax (Tramper December 2012, pages 17 and 20) and pīngao, when plaiting kete/baskets to give different hues. In the 1962-1975 era, Wellingtonian Isobel M Morice examined the fatty acids of the seed oils of several monocotyledons. Later, S G Brooker found that up to 25% of the total seed oil of three Astelia species is γ-linoleic acid which has been promoted as a medication for pre-menstrual syndrome and multiple sclerosis.
Where to find Astelia fragrans?
You can see kakaha in the Tararua and Aorangi ranges, and along the Orongorongo and McKerrow tracks in the Remutaka Range. It occurs in ‘Post Office Bush’, Makara. It is uncommon in Centennial Reserve, Miramar. Look for it in Hayward Scenic Reserve, Lower Hutt, and East Harbour Regional Park, also in Barry Hadfield Nīkau Reserve, Paraparaumu.