This article was published in The Fringe, April 2014
The pakeha world scarcely knows about this relative of the more common five-finger. Both plants were members of the Pseudopanax genus but recently raukawa has been renamed using the Latin spelling of the Maori name. The genus is now Raukaua and includes two other species which were also previously known as Pseudopanax.
The Maori world knew this plant for its essential oils which emit a pleasant fragrance when the leaf is crushed. Today there is a resurgence of interest in raukawa to incorporate it in restoration plantings, in much the same way as notable flaxes are used to preserve their weaving qualities.
If only raukawa was as easy to grow as flax. It is an erratic tree when it comes to fruiting. The small white fruit, less than half a centimetre in diameter, are produced in clusters at any time of the year, but generally there are only a few ripe at any one time. That may be fine for birds if they know to return frequently, but it is frustrating for nurserymen wanting to collect a reasonable quantity.
The raukawa seedling starts life with a compound leaf of 3-5 leaflets that are remarkable for their deeply-lobed form. The adult form is quite different with leaves that are 10cm long and ‘entire’ - that is they don’t have separate leaflets and don’t have serrated edges. One oddity the adult leaf can sometimes demonstrate is a row of hooks on the underside’s mid-rib. Some Waitakere plants are known to show this peculiarity.
Raukawa is a glossy-leafed tree to 12 metres tall and it can be found throughout the three main islands of New Zealand, but its occurrence is scattered and it is seldom seen. Perhaps that is because its seedlings prefer to start life on the trunk of a tree fern and rarely feature on the ground. Maybe that is the only reason they still survive as they are favoured food of possums, deer and goats.
Raukawa is famous in Maori legend for giving its name to an East Coast tribe – the Ngati Raukawa.
The son of a Waikato Tainui chieftain, Tūrongo travelled to the east coast district of Te Tai Rāwhiti, where he met Mahinaarangi and fell in love with her. Māhinaarangi became pregnant and she gave birth to a son. They named him Raukawa, after the perfume his mother wore during her courtship with Tūrongo. During the Musket wars his descendants, now called Ngati Raukawa, migrated from the Waikato to the southern North Island.
This year raukawa trees appear to be fruiting heavily in common with many other species that can be erratic in their fruiting habits. Beech trees are having such a heavy crop that conservationists are concerned the resultant boom in the rat population will become a huge threat to our native birds and insects. Rimu is also producing well, the first time for ten years. Again the rats and mice numbers will swell rapidly over the next few weeks, so, best you put out your rat bait.