The fading and pale beak of the Kaka

Back in late August, New Zealand collection curator Kate let a few of us know about the first flowering of an striking New Zealand plant in Melbourne Gardens. We've red-flowered Kaka Beaks (two different species) before but not the white-flowered form. 

Kate's new plants are in our 'Divaricating Bed', and collection featuring plants with a distinctive branching structure thought to have evolved at least due to Moa grazing. That's not true of this but given how much it enjoys the location it is here to stay I think. And in any case, it fits within the overall theme of this area, the New Zealand flora.

The seed of Clianthus puniceus 'Alba', as it is called, was given to Kate by Graeme Atkins, New Zealand Department of Conservation ranger and conservation activist. I understand he gathered the seed from plants in his home garden. Unusually for a cultivar, the flower colour remains relatively constant through seed. That isn't true of the red-flowered forms, as I'll get to.

Ngutukākā, in Maori, or Kaka Beak and Parrot's Beak in English, has a very distinctive large, and beak-like pea-flower. A number of selections have been brought into cultivation, including this white (or more accurately pale yellow or green) coloured form call 'Alba'. 

It's thought this cultivar began as a 'natural' sport, growing at Tiniroto, on North Island of New Zealand. This is about 100 kilometres south of where Graeme Atkins is active in his conservation work today, so it's not surprising he was our source.

The most common flower colour for Clianthus puniceus is red. I've posted images previously of red (and white flowered) forms from Lanarch Castle and from the nearby Dunedin Botanic Garden. This one is from the Melbourne Gardens collection, also in flower in late August.

There are also pink flowered cultivars, often grouped together under the name Clianthus puniceus 'Roseus'. Some are entirely pink, others with only a pink keel and wing. Like 'Alba', many are grown from seed, but in this case it leads to considerable in flower colour.

While the plant is flourishing in horticulture, it remains threatened in nature. Its original range is uncertain thought because Maori planted the species around their settlements. It may have been restricted to only Northland and around Auckland. 

The New Zealand Plant Conservation Network considers only one extant population, at Kaipara Harbour, northeast of Auckland, to be 'naturally occurring'. Other, what we might call 'semi-natural' remnants, are considered worth protecting. Graeme Atkins is caring for just under a hundred plants in the Raukumara Range, on the far east coast of North Island. The threats there are the same as elsewhere in its range: pest animal grazing and weeds.

There is one other species in the genus, Clianthus maximus, with darker, glossier leaves and larger, very dark red flowers (with even darker blotches at base). That species does better in cultivation (it's less disease prone) and is now more commonly grown than Clianthus puniceus. It's often sold under the cultivar name 'Kaka King'.

Sadly from a conservation perspective some of the early garden selections of Clianthus puniceus may have represented populations now extinct. Many of these have now been replaced in gardens by Clianthus maximus. So it's important we hold onto selections such as ours for conservation and for pleasure.