This article was published in the Titirangi Tatler, July 2011
If ever we had to choose the most weird and wonderful native animal, surely it would be the kiwi.
But what would the most weird and wonderful native plant be?
Surely the contenders would include the stinging nettle, a lancewood and a Dr. Seuss tree.
But can they really match the extraordinary form and texture of a Muehlenbeckia ephedroides?
The name alone puts it in contention but have you ever seen one?
Described as an untidy, sprawling mass of seemingly dead stick and twig-like branches, the near leafless, dark grey to grey-black, rush-like stems are unique to this species. Never has a deader-looking plant been so vigorous, pliable and full of life! It creates a tangled lattice resembling a skein of grey wool after a kitten has played with it.
It used to be found on gravel river beds, shingle beaches and rocky mountains including the summit of Ruapehu, but although it is an extremely hardy plant it is not able to compete with taller-growing species. As weeds tend to favour the same habitats, it is slowly declining as it is pushed towards extinction.
What are its merits and why should we care?
Like the four other members of its genus in New Zealand, it is a plant favoured by many of our birds, moths, butterflies and lizards. As the plants decline so will all the species that depend upon them.
The habitat the plant forms is ideal for skinks, where they can slither amongst its tangle of strands to hide or move cautiously out from under it to sunbathe. Muehlenbeckia are a great food source for them and the juicy fruit that surrounds the seed is particularly sweet. Even humans can enjoy it if you have the patience to seek the cryptic fruit. You may well have eaten the seeds in your mixed grain wholemeal bread, where the Muehlenbeckia seeds can be found having been picked up by the combine harvester with cereal crops. The seed's distinctive diamond shape is easily discernible when you bite into a sandwich; it's the gritty bit.
The poor overlooked Muehlenbeckia is indeed an extraordinary plant that merits more attention. Cascading over a rock wall or scrambling across river pebbles it creates a peculiar shimmering presence that at first glance seems alive but on second thoughts you will probably conclude it is indeed ‘dead'. Then on closer acquaintance you realise how wrong you were and how intricate the detail of its leaves (if any) and flowers and fruit.
Learn to love your Muehlenbeckia ephedroides now and be among the first to enjoy this trend-setting plant.