October in the hills with Chris Horne and Michele Dickson
Astelia hastata, kahakaha, perching lily
Astelia hastata is the last of the three species of Astelia found in the Wellington region which we will describe. Like A. solandri, described in the August Tramper, this species grows as a nest epiphyte, which means that it grows perching on other plants, usually on the forks of tall trees, or on rocks, hence its name – perching lily. If it falls to the ground, it may take root there.
Origin of the botanical name
Astelia comes from the Greek words ‘a’ without, a ‘stele’ pillar, meaning ‘lacking a stem’; ‘hastata’ comes from Latin ‘hastata’ meaning ‘spear’ or ‘lance’, which refers to the shape of the leaves. You may have learnt this plant by its former name, Collospermum hastatum. Taxonomists have recently assigned the species to the Astelia genus. Collospermum means ‘slimy seed’.
Distribution and habitat
Kahakaha is endemic to Aotearoa/NZ. It grows on Manawatāwhi/The Three Kings Islands, and on coastal and lowland sites on Te Ika a Māui/North Island and north of Kaikoura and Greymouth on Te Waipounamu/South Island.
Kahakaha/perching lily is a robust, tufted plant which often grows in large colonies, its roots wrapped around the branch of a host tree. It is an evergreen, perennial, herbaceous species. The thick, curved leaves are 60 cm-170 cm long x 3 cm-7 cm wide. Their upper surfaces are dull green. The upper parts of the undersides are bronze with dark-centred scales; the lower part is black, which makes the plant easy for you to identify at a distance, even when it is perched high on a tree.
The clusters of flowers, or inflorescences, are on stalks/peduncles which arch out from the fans of leaves. The female flowers, very pale cream, are in a cluster 20-30 cm long x 2.5 cm wide; the male flowers, cream, deeper yellow towards the base, are in a cluster 15-30 cm long x 3 cm wide. Female flowers and male flowers, on separate plants, appear from January to March. The female flowers are pollinated by insects, birds and pekapeka/bats. The spherical fruit, c. 4.5 mm in diameter, is translucent yellow-green, ripening to red. The dull black, ridged, egg-shaped seeds, c. 1.4 mm x 0.7 mm, are surrounded by a thick sticky substance called an aril. The fruit, which appears from March to August, is eaten by birds, geckos and skinks which disperse the seeds.
The berries are edible in autumn and winter.
Where to find Astelia hastata?
Look for kahakaha in Otari-Wilton’s Bush, Johnston Hill Reserve, ‘Post Office Bush’ at Makara, and East Harbour Regional Park. You can also see it in the Tararua and Remutaka ranges. It is uncommon in the Aorangi Range. Caution! Wi Parata Reserve, Waikanae, was closed during recent severe gales because clumps of ‘widow/widower-maker’ astelias had fallen from tall trees. Kāpiti Coast District Council closed it to prevent injury to walkers. Never camp under an epiphytic Astelia!