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Ripogonum scandens
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This article was published in The Fringe, May 2015

Supplejack,  Kareao

Perhaps the rest of the world is fortunate that Kareao is an endemic New Zealand species, growing nowhere else in the world.

But the other viewpoint is that we are lucky to have such a weird and wonderful plant growing widely throughout the country, and one that is so useful and versatile. Only our imagination limits the uses we could find for the amazingly strong and yet pliable vine with its bare, black, knotted stems we commonly know as supplejack.

Perhaps its first and most well-known use was, and still is, as a vegetable. The tender 30cm tips of a fast-growing shoot can be lightly steamed, and served with salt and butter to provide a delicious substitute for asparagus. To complete the meal, first catch your eel. Take lengths of Kareao and weave an elegant eel trap, set in your nearest wetland or river, baited with a slice of finest NZ road-killed possum. Wash it all down with a ‘Bush Sarsaparilla’ type drink made from the squeezed roots of Kareao, or if you prefer a stronger drink it can be fermented to make a clear golden beer.

If defence is your major concern, place tangled coils of supplejack on all points of entry. Any intruder is bound to be tripped up by the impenetrable tangle. But if you are into breaching defences, then first construct a ladder from two long lengths of supplejack and numerous short cross pieces to be attached with flax leaves. Thrown against defences, such ladders provide unimpeded access.

Similar construction techniques can be used to create a wide range of useful implements and tools. Even housing can be constructed using Ripogonum as the structural element or as the binding to hold wooden beams together. Covered in thatch, either method provides good shelter on a modest budget.

In a small North Shore Reserve a canopy of Puriri trees provides dense shade. Down in the gully the emerging black Ripogonum stems, growing at up to 5cm per day, emerge from a short stubby rhizomatous root. Snaking into the air they search out the support of shrubs, trunks, fallen branches or anything to give them support as they reach upward for light. But the forest floor was browsed by cattle for many years, leaving nothing but young nikau plants, too insubstantial to help these Kareao. So the enterprising, entwining stems encircled each other by revolving in an anticlockwise direction and providing mutual support. This way they were able to climb vertically straight up into the outspread Puriri branches high above.

There the leafless stems suddenly stop their twining and develop 12cm long opposite paired leaves among which the flower spikes evolve. The perfect flowers grow in bunches, each with 6 stamens and one female pistil from which a bright red fruit develops looking exactly like a Jaffa with its bright red coat. Alas, the seed inside is not made of chocolate.

While the supplejack is seldom planted as an ornamental in the garden, it can with some imagination and patience, make a striking centrepiece with a sculptured beauty that other plants lack. Give it a try but be prepared for a slow blossoming.

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