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Tecomanthe speciosa
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This article was published in the Titirangi Tatler, September 2011

Three Kings Bignonia

In the past, New Zealand flora and fauna has been to the brink of extinction through eons of ice ages and periods of warming. We cannot assume such loss of species does not happen these days. July's extended period of westerly storms demonstrated how quickly nature can decimate a species. The petrel and prion populations suffered far greater losses in a few days than ever previously recorded. Of all the dead seabirds found heaped in drifts along our coastline, the broad-billed prion seems to have been the most common, comprising 91% of those counted and identified.

It certainly caused me to reflect on the tenuous nature of our native species, when birds so superbly adapted to living at sea and riding storms could be destroyed in such numbers. The fact that three of them at least died on my property in Oratia indicates to me that huge numbers may have been dispersed, unaccounted for, across the length of New Zealand. Of an estimated total population of 1 million broad-billed prions within New Zealand waters, perhaps between 20 - 40% of their population may have been killed in the one event.

Nowadays our flora and fauna face threats of extinction which are generally from the hand of man. No-one knows how many species were lost for ever when our government decided to place goats on the Three Kings Islands to provide food for potential shipwreck survivors following the 1902 wreck of the SS Elingamite on rocks off the main island.

For the next 40 years the goats reduced the vegetation to stunted kanuka, having ring barked, stripped and eaten all the accessible and palatable species. In 1946 botanist Geoff Baylis supervised the eradication of the goats and during his time on the island found several plant species new to science, including just one plant of both the Tecomanthe vine and the world's rarest tree, Pennantia baylisiana. Both the original plants are still growing, but there is no indication that they are able to regenerate by themselves on the island, as no more plants have been found of either species.

The Tecomanthe vine has been seen to flower on the island and it certainly does so in cultivation with this having been a particularly spectacular year. Many cultivated plants set seed in a most wondrous ‘pod', rather like a straight banana crafted in leather. Alas, the island plant does not appear to set seed at all.

The vine itself is striking in its tropical exuberance with large, glossy, compound leaves of a dark green, and with spiraling tendrils seeking a grip on the nearest branch of any unfortunate tree it may have been unwisely planted beside. The sheer weight of foliage can be enough to break branches and in extreme cases the combined weight and wind resistance can cause the entangled plants to blow over.

Thoughtful placement is well rewarded, however. The flowers have an enigmatic beauty in a soft cream colour and occur in thick bunches of up to 50 blossoms which burst in profusion from out of the trunk and stems. Individually they are shaped rather like a saxophone and appear designed to be pollinated by bats. Unfortunately there are now no bats on the Three Kings Islands which may well account for the lack of seed production.

The fate of the plants on the Three Kings Islands is in the hands of the Department of Conservation, but we can ensure good populations of Tecomanthe are established in our gardens and parks. Even Transit has planted thousands of Tecomanthe along some of the motorway ‘on' and ‘off' ramps, though I suspect their support structures will not be strong enough to carry the burden of a mature Tecomanthe vine.

But then it surely is better to have a Tecomanthe dragging down a fence than the weighty, weedy ivy vines whose seeds are rapidly being dispersed throughout our neighbourhoods and forests. Last weekend I weeded over 200 newly germinated ivy seedlings from a small portion of my garden. The parent vine is a considerable distance away beyond my jurisdiction. I must have a chat to my neighbour.

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