We think that kākābeak are a national treasure! With the unveiling of our kākā nesting boxes last month, we are keeping with the kākā theme for this month’s garden plant. The name kākābeak is a direct translation for the Māori name for the plant - ngutukākā. These showy shrubs have been popular as garden plants for centuries. Māori traded and gifted kākābeak plants and seeds historically and this connection is kept alive and well through several kākābeak conservation projects that are run by, or in conjunction with, several marae around the country.
Kākābeak are small, bushy shrubs, growing to around 2m tall (although they are usually smaller). They have soft, feathery leaves that look very similar to large kо̄whai leaves. Their flowers too are a very similar shape to a kо̄whai, but are bigger and bright red. This similarity is more than just superficial - kākābeak and kо̄whai are both in the same plant family, the legumes (along with gorse, lupins, broom, beans and peas). Plants in this family often have specialised root structures and relationships with particular soil bacteria that enable them to freely access nitrogen in the soil. This gives them a nutrient boost that other plants can’t reach.
There are two species of kākābeak in Aotearoa, both are only found here and both are critically endangered in the wild. Clianthus maximus has a small population (around 150 plants) remaining near the East Cape and Clianthus puniceus has a tiny pocket of plants remaining on a small island in the Auckland region. Because of the early trade and cultivation of kākābeak (of both species), it is hard to know their original distribution, but they both would certainly have been far more widespread than they are today. As you might expect from their name, Clianthus maximus are larger plants than Clianthus puniceus, reaching around 2m high, while the latter only reaches around 1.5m. C. maximus has darker red, or orange-red flowers, while C. puniceus flowers range from salmon-red, through pink shades to the occasional plant with cream-coloured blooms. Just like their kōwhai cousins, kākābeak are bird-pollinated and in areas with good predator control tūī and kākā will flock to feed on their nectar.
Kākābeak are well-loved, attractive plants, so why are they so critically endangered? Unfortunately they are well-loved by more than just people. Kākābeak are a delicacy for most of the introduced herbivores in New Zealand, including rats, goats, rabbits, pigs and deer. Goats are a particular threat, because they can access very challenging sites and will strip a plant in minutes. Even garden snails (which are all introduced) love kākābeak and can eat away all the leaves and most of the bark in a night. Unfortunately these snails are very widespread well beyond gardens so they are a problem in the wild too. With a veritable arc of hungry herbivores, which can climb or crawl to even the most precarious habitat, our kākābeak have very few places to hide.
Luckily for them (and you!) kākābeak make fantastic garden plants. They grow well in pots and their trailing branches can be tied and trained along a low fence. Kākābeak like rich soil, but very good drainage, so they do well on banks or other elevated sites. They prefer full sun to partial shade. Keep up rat trapping and snail control (going out at night with a torch to pull them off is usually enough) to keep their ferny leaves looking luscious and you will be rewarded with an extravagant display of flowers through late winter and early spring.