The season of the kowhai


Spring. Tui feasting on kowhai flower nectar. Image; Su Leslie 2019

Amongst all the flowers that burst forth in Spring, the one that speaks most clearly of the season in Aotearoa New Zealand is the kowhai.

kowhai cluster2

Image: Su Leslie

Kowhai (eight species of tree within the genus Sophora) are native to this country. Unlike many NZ natives, kowhai are semi-deciduous, making their spring-time transformation even more spectacular. Unusually too, kowhai flowers appear before the new leaves.

kowhai cluster intense

Kowhai flowers. Image: Su Leslie

Kowhai is the Maori word for yellow, and the plant has great significance; practically and culturally. Infusions of kowhai bark were used in traditional Maori medicine to treat a huge range of ailments from dandruff to knitting together broken bones. It was even given as a (fairly dramatic) cure for constipation.

kowhai cluster on blue background

Kowhai flowers. Image: Su Leslie

These days, the medicinal use of Kowhai is not recommended, as it’s known that the plant contains cytsine, an alkeloid common in several species within the legume family. It is similar to nicotine and, in humans, can cause headaches, breathing difficulties and in large doses — death.

Other animals are clearly not affected; kowhai flower nectar is a favourite food of the native Korimako, Kaka and Tui.  One of the great springtime pleasures is watching and listening to Tui in a kowhai tree.

tui in kowhai

Tui in a kowhai tree. Image: Su Leslie 2019


Tui in a kowhai tree. Image: Su Leslie 2019

If you’d like to know what Tui’s sound like, this video‘s good and has footage of Kereru (wood pigeon) and Tauhou (wax-eye)

Lens-Artists Photo Challenge | Spring

Friday Flowers

47 thoughts on “The season of the kowhai

  1. NZ has such unique foliage and bird life, it’s like another world. This one is really unique – I can see why it would be so important to the Maori. based on it’s (dramatic) impact I’d stay away from its medicinal properties! Beautiful images of this indigenous tree Su.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Lois. It is gorgeous and very noisy. We’re seeing more of them now that land around us has been cleared and our little neighbourhood is one of the few left with mature native trees.


  2. Gorgeous images, Su, with colouring so reminiscent of Autumn! That first bird is a riot of sounds! As a singer & voice teacher it’s fascinating to listen to. I bet they’re great mimics. The city dwellers would have very different kinds of sounds at louder volumes and that might make a difference in their calls. The Tauhou (second bird) has lovely plumage. Thank you for putting everything together for us to enjoy!

    Liked by 4 people

  3. As if the Kowhai wasn’t unusual enough, you upped the ante with the Tui and all its squeaks, chirps, hoots, and whistles. I wonder if that’s where the inspiration for R2D2’s sound effects came from in Star Wars? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Lens-Artists Photo Challenge # 106: Autumn – P.A. Moed

  5. You know how fond I am of the tui. 😉 Love their wide range of song – very impressive!
    And how interesting to learn about the kowhai! Fascinating to see how it has been used as medicine and now it’s advised not to – and how the birds couldn’t care less. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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