This article was published in The Fringe, December 2015
Tawheowheo (or kumarahou)
Three, two or one species of Quintinia are indigenous to New Zealand, depending upon which authority you refer to. Current thinking accepts there is considerable variability within the one species, Quintinia serrata, and absorbs within it plants answering the descriptions formerly given for Quintinia acutifolia and Quintinia elliptica. All three forms merge into each other and the principal consistent difference appears to be the size of the seed capsule.
Worldwide the number of species within Quintinia has increased with time, as botanists reclassify plants and subsume one genera into another. In 1889 Thomas Kirk stated there were 4 species, 2 in New Zealand and 2 in New South Wales. As recently as 2011 Dawson & Lucas numbered 7 species in Quintinia. A quick Google search suggests 15, 19, or 21, but the consensus now suggests 25 species to be found as far away as New Guinea, Malaysia and the Phillipines.
Despite occurring in the tropics, most species appear to prefer the cooler climate found at higher altitudes where cloud and mists prevail bringing constant moisture. So it is along the higher ridges in the Waitakeres, which receive most rain, that you are most likely to find local specimens of tawheowheo. An easy place to start is the Cutty Grass Track running from the Scenic Drive to Anawhata Road. Recent maintenance by the power authorities has left the track in good condition, although somewhat slippery after rain, and it is a pleasure to amble slowly, viewing the vegetation from a good distance to appreciate the size and form of trees, their shades of green and the conditions they choose to grow in.
Quintinia can grow to 15m and is distinctive in its peculiar colouring which, particularly in young trees, is generally a bronze-green highlighted by the occasional red and/or orange leaf. In addition the 10cm long, alternate leaves have a wavy edge with perhaps some serrations to confirm the appropriateness of its species name – serrata. The twigs can also provide a clue as they frequently exude a sticky viscous shiny substance, covering their newest growing tips. The flower spikes might have as many as twenty or thirty individual flowers which are generally white but may have tones of pink or lilac. The trees are dioecious with male and female flowers on separate trees, and of course only the female trees will have flowers developing into seed capsules.
Each capsule contains 20 – 30 seeds. It might be worth trying to grow some yourself as some authorities, including Thomas Kirk, suggest it is quite easy, but in my experience it is difficult in Auckland as Quintinia does not like the climate fluctuations found at lower altitudes. Tawheowheo is generally found in high forests mainly along the western half of both islands.
Although the Maori name of tawheowheo is widely recognised, the plant is sometimes known as kumarahou on the East Coast - not to be confused with the small 2m shrub also known as golden tainui which grows on clay soils in the northern half of the North Island.