A Gentle Tree

My well of inspiration for post topics has run dry today so I am going to emulate a friend and write about trees.

My favourite tree is the Kowhai, especially the sub species with very fine leaves (Sophora microphylla). To me the kowhai is a gentle tree, welcoming spring with a spectacular burst of bright yellow flowers for the tuis and bellbirds to feast upon. Then once clothed in its summer leaves woodpigeons love to munch upon the new leaf shoots, teetering their bulk on fine branches.

At each of the two houses we have owned I planted kowhai trees. The best seedlings came from an old chap in Owaka who raised seedlings from his son’s farm in the Catlins and sold them for a song. These were hardy plants, well suited to a coastal climate but slow growing. I also managed to grow some from seeds, first soaking the seeds for a week in water to get the hard outer shell of crack open.

The seeds of kowhai are actually poisonous, containing a compound which mimics the effect of nicotine and in amounts sufficient to make a person quite ill. However, the seed coat is so tough that it resists degradation in the human digestive system so fortunately actual poisonings are quite rare as only the green seeds are soft enough for a person to chew and release the toxin. It seems a little incongruous that a tree I view as being ‘gentle’ would have poisonous seeds, but perhaps it is just as well for it to have some defence against opossums.

Another interesting thing about kowhai trees is that they are legumes. They have nodules on their roots containing bacteria which can fix nitrogen from the soil, making it available for the tree to use. This enables kowhai trees to grow in low quality soils such as sandy, gravelly areas with less organic material in the soil.

I’m not sure exactly why I consider kowhai trees to be gentle, it may be due to the softness of the leaves and it’s wiry delicate shape when young. But to me even mature old kowhai trees have a gentle dignity about them. They are not one of the mighty giants of the New Zealand forest, but they provide food for some of my favourite birds and have some of the most spectacular flowers of all our trees. There is a kowhai beside the bus shelter where I catch my morning bus to work and in the spring it leaves a carpet of fallen yellow flowers, making a great contrast of yellow softness against the black harshness of the asphalt footpath.