Ngutukākā is a plant of special significance to New Zealand. There are two species, both seriously threatened with extinction in the wild: Clianthus puniceus and Clianthus maximus. Its conservation status is Nationally Critical and is found only in New Zealand, with its closet relative in Australia.
Ngutukākā is named for its beautiful red flowers, which hang in clusters of 15-20 blooms and are shaped liked kaka's a beak. Hence Ngutu meaning beak/lips and Kākā meaning the native parrot of the same name.
Ngutukākā has a long-lived seed which may still be able to germinate after 30 years, creating a seed bank that holds many seeds ready to germinate when conditions suit. This enables it to grow in shrubland which is not permanently open but is frequently disturbed. The seeds wait for light gaps to appear, e.g. following a tree-fall or a slip, and then germinate in response.
Plants can grow up to 2-3m tall, producing long, trailing stems that form new plants when they come into contact with the soil. In this way, one parent plant can cover a large area.
Being a member of the pea family, Ngutukākā can fix nitrogen, enabling it to grow in infertile sites.
Where is it found?
Only around 150 plants are known in the wild. It’s widespread in cultivation, but there’s not a lot known of the genetic diversity of these plants or their provenance. Maori used Ngutukākā for gifting and trading, which makes it unclear what the pre-human distribution of Ngutukākā was. It has been reported as growing in Northland, Auckland, Great Barrier Island, Coromandel, around Lake Waikaremoana, and the East Cape and Hawke's Bay.
Wild Ngutukākā is currently known to be at Moturemu Island in the Kaipara harbour, several locations near Ruatoria on the East Cape, Lake Waikaremoana, Ruakituri near Wairoa, and in Hawke’s Bay around Boundary Stream Mainland Island.
Ngutukākā grows in open, sunny, steep sites, often on rocky outcrops, slips, the bases of cliffs or edges of lakes and streams. It is a relatively short-lived plant, sometimes lasting 15-20 years.
Ngutukākā is a very nutritious plant and has no defences against browsing by deer, goats, pigs, hares, stock or introduced garden snails (which are often found in the wild). There is no evidence to suggest they are browsed by possums.
Ngutukākā was noted as being uncommon in the wild as early as the beginning of last century. Introduced plants, such as Mexican daisy, gorse and buddleia, which compete for habitat, also threaten its survival as they like to live in similar sites.
The Ngutukākā Recovery Group focuses on protecting known wild plants, finding and enhancing new populations and establishing Ngutukākā in the wild in its natural habitat. Different methods for this include:
- working with iwi and community groups such as Forest Lifeforce Restoration Trust and Scion supporting each other along with farmers, foresters and local business to ensure its survival in the wild and within its natural range
- the East Cape, north of Gisborne, Ruatoria has an extensive roadside planting programme which was established with local schools; including an ingenious method of protecting plants in the wild using animal repellent sprays
- seed from wild plants in the Hawkes Bay have been collected and propelled onto steep bluffs and inaccessible sites, where browsing animals are unable to reach. Using a hydro-seeding method, the seed is propelled from a helicopter, enabling up to 80,000 seeds at a time to be returned to the wild. No concrete evidence has been recorded to date, but experts are hopeful in five to 10 years, bluffs and cliffs will be flourishing with red Ngutukākā flowers in its natural habitat.
You can help
Ask DOC about using local plants if you live near a site where Ngutukākā grows naturally. DOC staff and the Ngutukākā Recovery Group Members are happy to talk about the best options and ways you can become involved in the recovery of Ngutukākā back into the wild.
Your contribution will make the difference. We need your eagle eyes. September and October is the best time of the year to spot Ngutukākā in the wild, because the plants are heavy with spectacular bunches of red flowers. If you are interested in helping protect this unique plant contact your closest DOC office.