November in the hills with Chris Horne and Michele Dickson
Solanum laciniatum, poroporo, bullibulli
Origin of the botanical name
Solanum, the Latin word for nightshade, refers to the comforting or narcotic effects of some members of the genus; laciniatum comes from the Latin word ‘lacinia’ meaning ‘fringed, cut into narrow lobes, slashed’. Poroporo is a member of the potato, tomato and tamarillo family, the Solanaceae.
Distribution and habitat
Poroporo is common on Te Ika a Māui/North Island from Auckland southwards and on Te Waipounamu/South Island as far south as Dunedin, on Rakiura/Stewart Island and Rekohu/ Chatham Island. Look for poroporo near the coast, in lowland forests and on forest margins. Poroporo is native to New Zealand. It also occurs in eastern Australia and New Guinea.
Poroporo is a soft-wooded, widely branching shrub or small tree about 3 m tall. The young stems are black or purplish. The leaves are alternate on the branches, thin, 15 cm-30 cm long or more, dark green, with one, two or three long, pointed lobes, or sometimes simply spear-shaped without lobes.
Poroporo flowers and fruits most of the year. The flowers are up to 5 cm diameter, bright purple. The petals have rounded ends and ruffled margins. The fruit are egg-shaped, 20 mm-25 mm long. They droop and ripen to yellowish. The seeds are 2.2 mm-2.5 mm long.
Māori used infusions of the leaves to combat itchy skin. Māori and the Pākehā settlers ate the fruit when the skins had split, but never before that because the fruits are very toxic. The settlers made jam from the fruit. Poroporo was grown until 1981 as a crop in Taranaki for producing hormonal steroids for birth control and pain-relief for rheumatoid arthritis. Several dyes for cloth have been produced from the branches and leaves.
Where can you find poroporo?
Look for poroporo in Ōtari-Wilton’s Bush, Centennial Reserve / Miramar Peninsula, other Wellington reserves, Lowry Bay Scenic Reserve and in the Remutaka Range. It colonises slips, clear-felled areas and private gardens, the seeds deposited there by birds.
A relative, S. aviculare, also called poroporo, has smaller, white or lavender flowers, up to 3.5 cm diameter. The petals have pointed ends. The stems are dark green. The species is described by DOC as ‘at risk – declining’.