This article was published in the Titirangi Tatler, October 2009
Make a statement with a kakabeak:
Fashion can cause extinctions of species. Over-exploitation of the huia is one such example. The long black tail feathers with a white tip were prized items long before Europeans came to New Zealand, but demand increased when in 1902 the Duke of York decorated his hat with one.
But fashion can also save species from extinction. The red-flowered kakabeak has been hovering near extinction in the wild for many years. But fortunately as a popular garden plant it became well-established in horticulture. At least, it was.
However, as fashions change, species fluctuate. In recent years it has been determined that there are two species of kakabeak. Clianthus puniceus was the form that was originally cultivated widely, but when in the 1990's the bigger, brighter, more vigorous and upright Clianthus maximus from the East Coast was introduced to the gardening world, it became extremely popular. Alas the slightly less conspicuous Clianthus puniceus was no longer in favour and has been difficult to find in garden centres for the last decade.
In the wild, both species of kakabeak are vulnerable to summer droughts, competition from weeds, and browsing by insects and animals, including rodents. If we are to save the species from extinction it will be essential to grow it in gardens until wild populations can be re-established. Even then the species will be at risk of extinction.
By 2005 there was only one known plant of Clianthus puniceus left in the wild, at a site on the Kaipara Harbour. Meanwhile, the East Coast plants have suffered a major population decline in the last few years, where the largest population near Lake Waikaremoana, has plummeted from 1500 individuals to 153 individuals at last count. Goats are the main threat, but weeds, insects, fire and development all have an impact.
In the garden both species respond well if given free-draining soil. Plant kakabeak with rocks or scoria, or at the top of a retaining wall which has been backfilled. Not only will the plant thrive, but you will see the pendulous scarlet flowers to best advantage from below.
As a bonus they attract tui for the 3-4 months the kakabeak is flowering.