Colourful winter flowering Kōwhai
I was out walking this week and enjoying the brilliant winter sunshine when a noisy chorus of tūī and Korimako (bellbirds) closeby attracted my attention! Looking around to see where all the bird chatter was coming from I was amazed to see the excitement was coming from several Kōwhai trees that had a great many birds engaged in a frenzy of feeding off the bright yellow flowers hanging like bunches of golden bells. It seemed incredible to see Kōwhai trees flowering so early. A sign of early Spring and it’s not even MidWinter Solstice yet, and surely winter isn’t done! But here I was looking at a number of very ancient Kōwhai trees in full bloom!
Managing to get closer to the scene of intense bird activity, I saw in addition to the many tūī and Korimako, there were also many Silvereye (wax-eyes). Tiny birds darting and dangling from bunch to bunch of hanging yellow flowers. There appeared to be a definite “pecking order “ amongst the birds with tūī occupying the higher tree top branches and fiercely defending and chasing off others with a high pitched warning call, whilst the Korimako darted efficiently between trees intent on feeding and ignorning the steady drone of happy bees gathered around to get their fair share of golden nectar.
It was quite a spectacle and a special close up encounter.
Kōwhai is a word used in te reo for “yellow” and is used for a number of endemic species from the Sophora genus – all with strikingly bright, golden flowers. Many Kōwhai are semi-deciduous, losing most of their leaves in the wintertime. The eruption of sunny yellow flowers from the barren branches is considered a sign of the last frost of winter and a time to plant kumara.
The spectacular Kōwhai flowers have been used to produce a pigment for yellow dye and the seed pods used to produce a less intense yellow colour. Kōwhai arrived on the shores of New Zealand sometime in the past 2 million years and possible due to the unique hardy, buoyant seed pods that resist salt water. The name Sophora is thought to derive from the Arabic name ‘sufayra’ for a tree in the pea family. The word Kōwhai derives from the ancient Polynesian word Koofai used for pod-bearing plants.
The hard resistant yellow seed pods are very tough and notoriously difficult to propagate. However, I aim to have a go and have gathered a supply of pods from these early flowering trees to try and propagate for future planting here at the Ecosanctuary.
Until next time on the "Biome Blog" - take care,
Point Bush Ecosanctuary Trustee