One of Aotearoa’s prettiest, tastiest and rarest native plants is making a comeback in the Eastern Bay of Plenty thanks to local communities and conservationists.
Ngutukākā (also known as kākābeak) has striking red flowers shaped like a bird’s beak and edible seed pods that are similar to snow peas. The taonga species once covered hills and gullies and their seeds were even taken back to England by Captain James Cook’s HMS Endeavour in 1769 and still grow today in London’s famous Kew Gardens.
But now there are little over 100 plants left in the wild. It’s listed as ‘nationally critical’ – DOC’s highest threat category for extinction.
Its popularity has also been its downfall – insects, snails, slugs, rabbits, deer and goats all love to gobble up ngutukākā, and their vulnerability means any remaining wild plants are found clinging to cliff ledges and remote steep bluffs.
But efforts to save this beautiful plant from extinction are gaining momentum, with the Endangered Species Foundation | Tāngaro Tuia te Ora joining forces with Tairāwhiti Ngutukākā Trust in 2017.
Together, with help from another organisation called Trees That Count, they are creating new seed banks and plantings at local marae and schools. Ngutukākā can now be seen blooming along SH35 and local communities are being encouraged to care for, and get involved in, planting projects.
Mere Tamanui is one of the project’s leaders and has created a seed bank after seeds were returned from London as part of Transit of Venus celebrations in 2012.
“Ngutukākā need to be accessible and in your face because they need caring for to establish themselves,” she explains. “Every two weeks we pretty much have to slug slam them. Snails will come in and ravish the plants overnight. They do need consistent TLC to repel insects and pests.”
Mere planted one ngutukākā initially (dubbed the grandmother tree) close to a primary school’s office “and close to our hearts where we could protect it”. The resulting seeds have since been re-planted far and wide by local tamariki and community members. “They look spectacular. You can’t help but smile when you see them.”
Other schools, maraes and roadsides have also been planted out and thousands of ngutukākā trees are now growing in Te Whānau-ā-Apanui territory in the Eastern Bay of Plenty and beyond. Last year ngutukākā was crowned our nation’s favourite native plant by the NZ Plant Conservation Network.
“Our vision is to spread this plant as far and wide as possible and to connect whanau back to the whenua through these engendered species,” Mere says.
Native birds like tui and bellbirds are also drawn to the plant and the seed pods are best eaten as kai when they’re young. While the Endangered Species Foundation and Tairāwhiti Ngutukākā Trust were reluctant to encourage people to eat the seed pods last year, there’s now plenty to go around.
“Now that our plantations have taken off, there’s enough seed for everybody which is awesome to be able to give out seed to the local community to eat or grow. People are interested in them, they want them, and now we’ve got four local private nurseries who are growing ngutukākā to generate income to support their whanau.”
BayTrust has granted $12,500 towards the project to help cultivate more plants and share them with the community to help emancipate the species.
“It’s fabulous news. We hope to raise awareness nationally to support other whanau, iwi and communities that are facing the same dilemma with other species. We want to show how you can collectively and collaboratively come together as a force to have an impact.”
The money will help fund more plantations, clearing and weeding (as ngutukākā will die if other plants out-shade them), slug and pest control, and support kaimahi (workers) to allow those involved to travel to remote sites. “We’ve got to cover a fair amount of ground. I bought a big bag of slug slam yesterday and that’s $100 per bag. We’ll go through one every two weeks.”
Maintaining the genetic diversity of seed banks is another big challenge to help successfully restore wild populations of the plant. Helicopters are being used to distribute seeds in remote areas. But ngutukākā seeds can lie dormant for up to 30 years so it’s a long-term effort.
“Our main mission is to help people who have these plants to look after them themselves. Whanau are taking the initiative to weed and adopt kaitiakitanga (guardianship) of these species which is wonderful.”