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Melicytus - all in the family, the violet family
« Return to main Melicytus ramiflorus subsp. ramiflorus page

This article was published in the Titirangi Tatler, April 2010.

Last month's article about puriri commented on how a tree can become an entire ecosystem with diverse species establishing as epiphytes on one tree. 

If your garden is too small for a puriri, it is possible to attain a similar diversity on a much smaller tree. Mahoe, (Melicytus ramiflorus) or whitey-wood, is a common enough small tree, but normally an overlooked component in the gardens of Titirangi. Strangely, it is further south that the truly magnificent growth forms occur. Early Maori recognised that the Mahoenui area is where the most ancient and remarkable trees grow. The twisted, contorted trunks look so aged, perhaps hundreds of years old, that it is a wonder they can bear the weight of epiphytes which perch, hang and climb all over the trees. Auckland's climate is too benign to develop the hardened, wizened forms of Mahoenui, and our humidity probably benefits the fungal enemies which cause our local mahoe to have a life-span shortened to perhaps 50 years. Despite being a long-lived tree and having white flowers, you get a hint from the purple fruit of mahoe that it is a member of the Violaceae family, best known for the popular purple-flowered violet garden plant. 

Within New Zealand there are eleven members of the genus Melicytus, and mahoe is the biggest, growing to 10 -15 metres. It is also widely spread from the Kermadec Islands to Stewart Island. A similar-looking plant (Melicytus macrophyllus) is smaller, slightly more tropical looking, and only growing from Auckland north. The other nine species are limited in their distribution and habitat, and quite different in appearance from mahoe.

There is a delightful divaricating shrub (Melicytus micranthus) with small leaves and a springy habit of growth. A weird looking, almost leafless, wispy plant (Melicytus flexuosous) grows in the central North Island and is also scattered locally in the South Island. One species is confined to the Chatham Islands (Melicytus chathamicus) where it is a major component of the dwindling forests there. 

None of the above look like a violet but we do have three small herbs that are much more like the image of a creeping violet, although they all have white flowers They are all members of the Viola genus the same as violets and pansies. Delicate little plants, they are very attractive but lack the beautiful scent we associate with violets. 

Whatever the situation in your garden there is a member of the violet family that will enhance it.

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