June in the hills with Chris Horne and Michele Dickson
Pittosporum tenuifolium, kōhūhū, black matipo
Origin of the botanical name
Pittosporum is derived from the Greek word “pitta” for pitch (tar), referring to the sticky pulp around the seeds, and “spora” for seed; tenuifolium refers to the leaves being thin. Kōhūhū is a member of the Pittosporaceae family, found mostly in Australia, with about twenty species in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Distribution and habitat
Kōhūhū is endemic to New Zealand. It is common from near North Cape southwards in coastal to lower montane forests on Te Ika a Māui/North Island and on Te Waipounamu/South Island, except on the West Coast. Kōhūhū is often abundant as a pioneer in the early stages of forest regrowth, growing up through dense growths of bracken, for example.
Kōhūhū is a variable evergreen tree up to about 8 m tall with a trunk 30 cm-40 cm in diameter with grey or brown bark, sometimes fissured. The black or dark red branchlets and the young leaves may have short soft hairs. The leaf buds are scaly. The leaves, which vary in shape throughout Aotearoa New Zealand, are on short petioles / stalks. They are alternate, variable in shape, ranging from 1 cm-7 cm x 0.5 cm–2 cm, with smooth, wavy edges. They are thin and leathery, pale green on top, paler underneath and their edges may be wavy. Enjoy the smell of a leaf when you crush it.
Kōhūhū’s fragrant flowers are attached singly along the twigs. Each flower has five petals which curve backwards strongly and are very dark red or almost black. They appear from October to November, with the fruits ripening from January to March the following year. The fragrance of the tubular flowers at night attracts pollinating insects. The capsules / fruit are about 12 mm in diameter, and are wrinkled when mature. They split in three to reveal the black seeds set in a sticky fluid. Birds seek the seeds, and those which stick to the birds’ bills or feet are distributed elsewhere.
Tohunga used branches of kōhūhū when officiating at birth ceremonies, lifting tapu or welcoming people onto marae. Māori made perfumes from the gum by cutting the bark, and made dyes from the leaves. The timber is very strong but not durable in the ground. The light green leaves with wavy margins plus the dark bark make kōhūhū a popular garden plant.
Where can you find kōhūhū?
Look for it in Ōtari-Wilton's Bush, Wellington Botanic Garden Centennial Reserve, East Harbour Regional Park and in the Akatarawa, Tararua, Remutaka and Aorangi ranges.