Red alert - Kaka beak (Clianthus) - brilliant and endangered

Spring is such a time of contrasts.  It has been wet, windy and grey for a couple of days but when I visited Otari at the beginning of the week it was bright and colourful - and there was an arresting sight.

Along a trellis fence, a sprawling shrub of Kaka beak (Clianthus, or Kowhai ngutukaka in Maori) was covered with dangling clusters of its distinctive bright red flowers.  Their claw-like shape has been likened to the beak of a parrot, and the kaka is a native parrot - hence the name.

Appreciated as a garden plant, it has become very endangered in the wild - introduced plants and animals compete with it and consume it.

Of the two species, in the wild C. puniceus was found only on Moturemu Island on the Kaipara Harbour, and C. maximus was found mostly around Lake Waikaremoana.  The number of C. maximus plants was down to 153 in 2005! 

The kaka beak plant has been the focus of conservation efforts.  Plants were fenced to protect them from browsing animals and replanting was undertaken.  Local hapu, with the Department of Conservation, established Nga Tipu a Tane ki Waikaremoana nursery at Te Kura o Waikaremoana School, in the Lake Waikaremoana area.  Along the East Cape local schools were involved in roadside planting.  Animal repellant sprays were developed and used to protect plants.  Fortunately it produces seed which is long-lived, germinating when land where it has fallen is disturbed.  It also copes with poor soil - as a member of the legume family it can fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, via the symbiotic root bacteria within the root nodules, producing nitrogen compounds that help the plant to grow.

I don't know what the situation is today, but DoC information suggests that kaka beak is still growing on Moturemu Island in the Kaipara harbour, and at several sites on the East Cape, in Te Urewera National Park, near Wairoa, and in Boundary Stream Mainland Island in Hawkes Bay. 

When we humans jeopardise the future of living things which we can see and appreciate, we can be reminded of our impact.  That is much more difficult if the endangered plant or animal is shy or subtle - and in New Zealand we have a great many in that situation.  So this plant is something of a conservation alert for us all, in its eye-catching brilliance.