July in the hills with Chris Horne and Michele Dickson
Knightia excelsa, Rewarewa, New Zealand honeysuckle
Origin of the botanical name
Knightia is named after the plant physiologist Thomas Andrew Knight (1758-1838), President of the Royal Horticultural Society of London and friend of Sir Joseph Banks; excelsa refers to the tall, eminent form of the tree. Rewarewa is a member of the Proteaceae family, found mostly in South Africa, Australia and South America. There are only two native species in the family in New Zealand.
Distribution and habitat
Rewarewa is endemic to New Zealand. It is found on Te Ika a Māui/North Island and on Te Waipounamu/South Island only in the Marlborough Sounds. It is common in lowland forests and lower montane shrubland, often on poor soils and sites which are recovering after milling or fire.
Rewarewa is a tall cylindrical to conical tree up to about 30 m tall with a trunk up to 2 m in diameter and ascending branches. The smooth bark is brownish. Branchlets are clad in a red-brown, velvety tomentum. Leaves are alternate or whorled, thick, leathery, narrow, oblong and coarsely serrated. Juvenile leaves are yellow green, 15-30 cm long x 1-1.5 cm wide and adult leaves are dark green, 10-20 cm long x 2.5-4 cm wide.
Flowering occurs from October to December. Many flower buds arise along a short stem up to 10 cm long, clad in red-brown, velvety tomentum. The flower bud has four segments, which peel back from the tip as the flower ripens leaving the long, yellow-green, female part exposed to receive pollen. Each segment contains the male parts, which release pollen before the segment curls tightly to form a coil at the base of each flower. Pollination is by birds and bees. The base of the style develops into a fruit, becoming a woody, tomentum-covered pod up to 4 cm long. The pod splits into two halves when ripe a year later. Winged seeds are up to 25 mm including the wing and are wind dispersed. The mildly flavoured flowers are a preferred food of possums. Rodents eat rewarewa seeds, thus in forests where rodent control is intensive, rewarewa seedlings are often common.
Whilst not durable, rewarewa timber was used by Māori for stockades because it does not burn readily. The reddish-brown, speckled wood has been used in ornamentation and domestic items. Rewarewa’s red-brown honey has a malty flavour. Rongoā/medicinal uses include the inner part of the bark being bandaged onto wounds for healing. An extract has been found to be similar to some used for lowering blood cholesterol levels. A Māori tradition involving a rewarewa pod was used to determine an infant’s fortune
Where can you find rewarewa?
Look for it in Ōtari-Wilton's Bush, Wellington Botanic Garden, Centennial Reserve, Trelissick Park, East Harbour Regional Park and in the Akatarawa, Tararua, Remutaka and Aorangi ranges.