veiled in mystery
an article by John Clemens
From the New Zealand
Garden Journal (Journal of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture),
Volume 5, Number 1, June 2002, pp. 4-5.
The Royal New Zealand
Institute of Horticulture made the award of the Peter Skellerup
Plant Conservation Scholarship and Medal in support of the research
we are conducting on genetic diversity in Clianthus. Efforts
have been further advanced by support from the Public Good Science
Fund through a subcontract to Crop & Food Research under the
Native Ornamental Plants programme. The more we discover of the
remaining Clianthus diversity, the more we and others want
to know about the cultivation of this plant when the early European
botanists arrived, and in the preceding centuries. Yet, this cultural
information appears only sparingly in the literature, and would
appear to have been lost from the collective memory. As an introduction
to our work, I will briefly review the diversity of Clianthus
and its cultivation as seen by early European observers.
William Colenso read
his talk entitled 'On Clianthus puniceus Sol.' to the Hawke's
Bay Philosophical Institute on 14 December 1885. Described and given
the name Clianthus puniceus by Daniel Solander, the plant
locally known as kowhai ngutukaka or kaka beak had fascinated Colenso
since his first encounter with it 50 years earlier in the Bay of
Islands. This species had an unusual distribution, occurring around
and about sites of Maori habitation, while being comparative rare
in the wild. This fascination gained extra impetus when Colenso
later moved to live in Hawke's Bay where he noticed and described
a second species, Clianthus maximus.
with flowers from two or more inflorescences at various stages
of opening against the glossy, dark green leaves
Colenso recognised Clianthus
puniceus as a 'truly handsome' plant, but one that was remarkable
for its variety as well as for its beauty. While we have a range
of Clianthus cultivars available to us, Colenso was talking
about the variety he observed in the wild. As to the morphological
diversity within Clianthus, Colenso hints that the plants
associated with Maori villages on the Hick's Bay-Poverty Bay coast
between 1838-1843 were the same or similar to those with which he
was very familiar growing in Northland. However, when he moved further
south to live permanently in Hawke's Bay in 1844, he grew Clianthus
from a local source in his garden, and was surprised to see
how much it differed from the Northland plants. Clianthus plants
of this new form were also to be found growing in other parts of
Hawke's Bay. Specimens were sent to Kew in the 1840s, but Hooker
"could not detect any material difference" between the two forms.
In 1885, Colenso spoke of the differences between the Northern and
the Southern Clianthus. He said he was not concerned as
to whether or not these were different forms of Clianthus puniceus,
or different enough to be classified as distinct species. However,
he bluntly stated that "the two forms exist". After a little over
100 years, in which the two forms had languished as C. puniceus
var. puniceus, and C. puniceus var. maximus,
these have been recognised by Peter Heenan of Landcare Research
as the distinct species C. puniceus (G. Don) Sol. ex Lindl.
and C. maximus Colenso.
of Clianthus: to eat or for ornament?
The genus Clianthus
was described as being veiled in mystery by Colenso because,
unlike other native species, he believed that he had never seen
it growing commonly and truly in the wild. Possible exceptions were
on a few, small islands in the Bay of Islands. Although botanical
specimens were first collected by Solander and Banks in 1769, the
plant was probably not seen by other eminent collectors during later
expeditions. In fact, Colenso speculated that had it not been for
the efforts of European botanists and gardeners working within New
Zealand and "at Home", the plant would have become extinct by the
time he gave his talk in 1885.
However, this plant managed
to survive the centuries before European gardeners were on hand,
as he saw it, to rescue this plant from extinction. This suggests
that, although Clianthus might have been rare in the wild,
it had long been successfully cultivated by Maori before it was
catalogued by Banks and Solander. Therefore, Colenso saw Clianthus
as belonging to the suite of horticultural crops grown by Maori,
which he named as various sorts of taro (Colocasia) and
kumara (Ipomaea chrysorhiza), the paper mulberry (Broussonetia
papyrifera), the striped New Zealand flax (Phormium colensoi),
and the tipara or broadleaved cabbage tree (Cordyline sp.).
The gardening of these and other crops, e.g. gourd (Lagenaria
siceraria) and yam (Dioscorea elata), before and during
the time of early European settlement is described in great detail
by Helen Leach (1984), although there is no mention of Clianthus
in the catalogue of crops.
Until recently, I had
regarded the cultivation of Clianthus as having a cultural
significance of which I was unaware. Taylor (1855) commented that
Clianthus flowers were worn as adornments, suggesting a
purely ornamental use. While this might well have been the case,
a thread of anecdotal evidence suggests that Clianthus was
cultivated as a food plant, the green pods being eaten as if they
were snow peas. Any information readers might like to pass on to
do with the cultivation of Clianthus, whether for ornament,
food or some other purpose, would be most welcome.
We have discovered a
pattern to the distribution of the different genotypes within the
species C. maximus in the East Cape to Hawke's Bay area,
and a link between these genotypes and the sole survivors of the
once widespread C. puniceus. We will report on these findings
in the near future. In the meantime, we would like to hear about
traditional kowhai ngutukaka cultivation methods and uses.
Our work is partly supported
by the Public Good Science Fund, Native Ornamental Plants Programme,
under subcontract C02626 to the New Zealand Institute for Crop &
Food Research Ltd.
Colenso W (1885). On
Clianthus puniceus, Sol. Transactions and Proceedings
New Zealand Institute 18, 291-295.
Heenan PB (2000). Clianthus
(Fabaceae) in New Zealand: a reappraisal of Colenso's taxonomy.
New Zealand Journal of Botany 38, 361-371.
Leach H (1984). A
thousand years of gardening in New Zealand. Reed: Wellington.
Taylor R (1855). Te
Ika a Maui. New Zealand and its inhabitants. Wertheim and Macintosh:
of kaka beak naming, based on the descriptions of Colenso
(1885) and Heenan (2000)
specimens collected by Solander and Banks and referred to
as Clianthus puniceus
the herbarium specimens of Solander and Banks, George Don
renames the plant after his father (also George Don): Donia
of Dr Lindley's restoration of the name Clianthus puniceus
Colenso moves to Hawke's Bay, discovers a different Clianthus
species and refers to it as C. maximus
supplies specimens of the possible new species to Sir WJ Hooker
at Kew, whose team examines the specimens to hand and finds
no material difference between the two forms
in his Students' flora of New Zealand, reduces C.
maximus to a variety of C. puniceus
a reappraisal of Colenso's taxonomy, Peter Heenan (Landcare
Research, Lincoln) reinstates Clianthus maximus Colenso
to species rank, alongside Clianthus puniceus (G. Don)
Sol. ex Lindl.