This article was published in The Fringe, December 2013
Remember those rulers or pencil cases in your youth that had small inlaid squares of native timbers. They featured all the main species of big trees such as rimu and kauri, tawa and totara. Almost every schoolbag had one.
Despite using it every day for years, by the end of my schooling I could really only recognise one tree by its timber. That was rewarewa. It was the only tree that had an easily identifiable grain with a pattern small enough to be distinguishable in the small segments inlaid into our rulers.
One hundred years ago New Zealand's Director of Forestry, Alex Entrican, said rewarewa had "a handsome figure vaguely suggestive of English Oak". By that he meant it had that distinctive grain for which oak is known, so distinctive that a schoolboy could recognise it.
Schoolboys also recognised the seed pods of rewarewa which, once the seeds have dispersed, are much the shape of a canoe and can be used to float down streams - but only if the possums and rats haven't found them first, gnawing through the pods to eat the seeds inside.
Rewarewa flowers resemble bottle brushes with velvety red buds splitting open to reveal the red floral parts. The slender female stigmas are surrounded by four male stamens which recoil leaving four strips of pollen on the stigma. The tightly spiralled males then await a nectar-seeking tui or bellbird who will sip at the flower's base. Their pollen is then transferred by the bird to some other flower, fulfilling Darwin's theory that "Nature tells us, in the most emphatic manner, that she abhors perpetual self-fertilisation". When photographing the newly-opened flowers I saw clearly that each female had already received abundant pollen from its own stamens so perhaps Darwin was describing the exception rather than the rule.
Once pollinated, the flower shrivels and the developing seeds are protected by the swelling ovary which eventually forms the canoe-shaped pod. When mature it splits releasing several winged seeds which fly considerable distances on a breeze. Perhaps that is how its distant ancestors arrived from South Africa or Australia, as rewarewa is a member of the Protea family, most of which grow in those lands west of New Zealand.