November in the hills with Michele Dickson and Chris Horne
Freycinetia banksii, kiekie, kiekie
As David Ogilvie stated “we all love kiekie” for helping us scramble up banks, but he laments the scarcity of the fruits. (See article in The Tramper, December 2012.) Kiekie belongs to the screw-pine family, Pandanaceae, a largely tropical family represented in the Pacific Islands by species of pandanus with conspicuous large aerial roots supporting the stem.
Origin of the botanical name
Freycinetia was named by botanist Charles Gaudichaud-Beaupré (1789-1854) after Admiral Henri Louis Claude de Saulces de Freycinet (1779-1842), a 19th-century French navigator and explorer; banksii was named after Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), an English naturalist and botanist on Cook’s first voyage to NZ 1769-1770.
Distribution and habitat
Kiekie is endemic to Aotearoa/NZ. It grows on Te Ika a Māui/North Island, and on Te Waipounamu/South Island, extending to about the Clarence River in the east and Fiordland in the west. Look for it in wet sites in forest and beside streams.
Kiekie is a woody root-climber vine with densely branched stems ending in spiral tufts of descending narrow, sword-shaped, leathery leaves, a little reminiscent of the forest cabbage tree (The Tramper, December 2013). Assisted by its aerial roots, it climbs using trees, banks and other kiekie stems as support, or forms a dense tangle on the ground. It can climb to the crowns of trees 30 m or more tall. The stems are up to 4 cm diameter, marked with scars of old leaves. The dark green leaves, often blotched with yellow, are up to 150 cm long x 2.5 cm wide, with two prominent ribs running either side of the keeled midrib. The finely-toothed leaf edges and midrib are slightly rough to touch.
Male and female flowers are on separate plants. They occur in significant numbers about every 7-10 years. The inflorescences/flower clusters are in the form of a fleshy cylindrical spike or cone called a spadix. These appear at the top of the stem in spring, and are surrounded by 2, 3 or 4 succulent white or purple leaf-like structures called bracts. There can be up to 8 spadices at the top of a stem, each 7 cm x 1.5 cm at flowering, pale yellow or off-white, covered with tightly packed flowers, which individually are insignificant. On female plants the flowers develop into packed fruits, 8 mm x 2 mm x 10 mm, flattened longitudinally, which together form the ripe, corn-cob-like spadix growing to 15 cm x 3 cm in autumn. Initially green then brownish, these are sweet-tasting. Seeds, mostly in the lower part of the spadix, are 1 mm long, narrow on a long stalk. Flowers (called tāwhara) and sweet fruit (called ureure) are often eaten by possums, rats and birds. Possums are thought to aid seed dispersal by excreting them after eating the fruit. The flowers are said to be suited to bat pollination.
The bracts, fruits and flowers were a delicacy of Māori who made a liquor by fermenting the fruit. While not as strong as flax, the leaves were used for plaiting and weaving of bags and mats. Binding material was made from the roots, for use in making implements.
Where to find Freycinetia banksii?
You can see kiekie in many damp valleys around Wellington, e.g., Wellington Botanic Garden, Karori Sanctuary, Centennial Reserve, East Harbour and Kaitoke regional parks. It is plentiful in the Tararua, Remutaka and Aorangi Ranges.