What's so special about kōwhai? What does 'eco-sourcing' mean?

Why kōwhai should be cherished

    Kowhai features on old New Zealand stamp.
    Kōwhai features on old New Zealand stamp

  • Kōwhai are unique to New Zealand.
  • They have undergone a massive decline.
  • They are one of our few deciduous trees.
  • Their flowers attract nectar-feeding birds like tūī, bellbird and kākā.
  • They are valued by Maori for their medicinal properties.Kowhai decorates New Zealand's old two-cent coin.
    Kōwhai features on New Zealand's old two-cent coin
  • They offer a spectacular sign of spring.
  • They aren't hard to grow - they're tough and tolerate many soil types.
  • They feature as a loved New Zealand emblem on coins and stamps.

Kōwhai and birds

Bellbird feeding on kowhai nectar. Photo: John Barkla.
Bellbird/korimako feeding on kowhai nectar

The sight of birds flocking to spring-flowering kōwhai is one of the joys of a New Zealand spring.

Kōwhai is a major food source for nectar-loving birds such as tūī, bellbird and kākā. Waxeyes too will often be seen getting in on the feeding action.

Kōwhai is also popular with the native pigeon or kererū which will eat flower buds, flowers and leaves.

At other times of the year, insectivorous birds are attracted to kōwhai to feed on the sometimes abundant supplies of caterpillars of the kōwhai moth.

Growing a kōwhai or two is a sure way to entice birds to your garden.

Eco-sourcing kōwhai

Eco-sourced plants are those which are grown from seeds collected from naturally-occurring vegetation in a locality close to where they are replanted as part of a native planting project.

There are eight species of kōwhai in New Zealand but only one is a tree that grows naturally in Otago (Sophora microphylla - sometimes called the South Island kōwhai). Ask your nursery for eco-sourced kōwhai of this species – avoid cultivars and hybrids. Locally adapted plants have the best chance of survival.Sophora microphylla seeds

Sophora microphylla seeds

The main reasons for eco-sourcing in native planting projects are:

  • To avoid the risk of planting species which aren’t native to their locality and which could become invasive
  • To maintain the distinctiveness of a local flora. For many species the appearance, physiology and genetic make-up vary considerably throughout their range in New ZealandPupils water plants inside Otago Polytechnic nursery.
    Pupils watering seedlings inside Otago Polytechnic nursery
  • Local native wild plants are best suited to local conditions and therefore typically grow better than those sourced from elsewhere.

Several Otago nurseries hold concessions to collect seed from reserves and conservation land for the purposes of supplying eco-sourced plant material.

These nurseries sell eco-sourced kōwhai trees: 

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