Flowers of New Zealand
Deep in the South Pacific, at approximately the antipodes of the British Isles, lie the islands of New Zealand. The northern island is washed by the warmer currents of the South Pacific, while the southern islands are influenced by the turbulent winds of the Roaring Forties which are generated in the circumpolar Antarctic Convergence of the Southern Ocean. To put New Zealand in a European perspective latitude-wise, Auckland, in the north, lies on approximately the same latitude south of the equator as does Malaga in Spain or Algiers, lie north; Wellington, the capital, lies about the same as Rome or Barcelona. Queenstown in the south is about the same as the Bordeaux region of France, and Oban, the only settlement on Stewart Island, is about the same as Paris. In this unique environment, separated by around 2000 kilometres from Australia, the nearest neighbour, the fauna and flora of these islands evolved for millennia without outside influences. Species homo sapiens arrived less than a thousand years ago.
Some 80-85% of New Zealand’s plant life is unique just to these islands. The giant kauri trees of the (Agathis australis) of the North Island are among the world’s largest trees by volume, and in the southern beech (Notofagus spp.) of the South Island was the inspiration for Treebeard in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
Perhaps the most distinctive tree in the coastal North Island is the pohutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa), better known as New Zealand’s Christmas tree, whose bright crimson flowers decorate the cliff tops and beaches between November to January. These flowers attract the nectar-feeding tui bird, an important pollinator.
A tui feeding on nectar in a pohutukawa
In the early spring the semi-deciduous kowhai (Sophora tetraptera} bursts into a splendid display of vivid yellow flowers – Kowhai is the Maori word for yellow. This showy beautiful flower, also pollinated by nectar-feeding birds, is unofficially New Zealand’s National flower. It’s much rarer cousin, the kowhai ngutu-kaka, or kaka beak (Clianthus puniceus) is, arguably, NZ’s most showy flower. Although extremely rare in the wild, it grows well in gardens.
The yellow kowhai flowers
The showy red blooms of the kaka-beak
In the alpine regions of the Southern Alps, in spring and early summer, blooms what is erroneously called the Mt Cook lily (Ranunculus lyalli) which is more correctly called the giant buttercup. It is one of many species of buttercup found only in New Zealand. I believe seeds of this alpine plant are available in selected garden centres in UK.
Mt Cook lilies, or giant buttercup, flowering in Mt Cook National Park
Several New Zealand native plants are well known to gardeners in Britain by their Latin species name rather than their Maori name. Perhaps one of the best known are the hebe species. These range, in New Zealand, from the coastal environments to the alpine regions, all with different characteristics and colour variations. The most common is the koromiko (Hebe stricta), samples of which were first taken back to UK by Joseph Banks who was with Captain Cook’s first expedition to the Pacific.
Bumble bee in a koromiko (Hebe stricta) flower
Harakeke, or New Zealand flax, is better known in the UK as a phormium. There are two main species – Phormium tenox and Phormium cookianum – the second being Cook’s, or alpine flax, with smaller leaves and yellow flowers. NZ flax has large tough leaves and orange flowers. Variegated or red-leaved varieties are garden hybrids.
Flowers of the NZ flax (Phormium tenax)
Cook’s flax (Phormium cookianum)
The last native I will mention is the kotukutuku, or tree fuchsia (Fuchsia excorticata). This is the largest of fuchsia family and is one of the very few deciduous trees in New Zealand. The fruit produced, known as konini, is pleasant tasting and was a popular food-source to the pre-European Maori – if they could get to the fruit before the native pigeons!
tree fuchsia flower and fruit
large fuchsia trunk in the Stewart Island forest
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