This article was published in THe Fringe, February 2014
NZ passionfruit, Kohia
The vines of the New Zealand forests are discreet and flourish in the tops of trees, generally unseen until they flower. Some like Clematis paniculata then display cascading clusters of vivid white flowers, followed by wonderful fluffy seed balls on the female plant. Others make their presence known by gripping you with prickly leaves (bush lawyer), or tripping you up (supplejack).
One vine which goes unnoticed is the native passionfruit, Passiflora tetrandra, known to Maori as kohia and used by them for the oil in its fruit and as a slow-match to carry fire with them on their travels.
Its bare stem writhes across the ground before disappearing up into the canopy to merge indistinguishably into that mass of foliage in the tree-tops. The first hint you will have of it, is a carpet of small white or pale yellow flowers littering the forest floor. Or perhaps the sight of small round orange balls, which seem almost hollow, will set you guessing which tree they fell from. Those flowers and fruit are from kohia, our native, inedible passionfruit. Unlike the better known exotic and edible passionfruits with their colourful flowers and large fruit, our indigenous species is not flamboyant. The glossy leaves are also inconspicuous, and it is only the tendrils curling their spiral grip around a supporting tree that tell you this is a passionfruit.
The other clue is the sight of a trunk sprawling across the ground, as thick as your thigh, twisting and turning before perhaps branching and then ascending out of sight. No other vine in New Zealand reaches such dimensions, nor creates such a mass of dense foliage as does our passionfruit.
Not much threatened by browsing stock, kohia is more threatened by possum and rats who eat the fruit leaving just the empty husks scattered on the ground. In the long term this must have a negative effect on the health of the forest and of course passionfruit itself.
The native passionfruit is an endemic species and unlike oversea passionfruit the NZ species is dioecious which means male and female flowers occur on separate plants. This is a common characteristic of native plants and is a major point of distinction between our flora and those from the rest of the world.
Keep your eyes on the ground when walking in the bush this month for the golden passionfruit that have fallen from above. Then try to find the vine in the canopy and follow it down to the snaking trunk writhing across the forest floor.