Photo credit Auckland Zoo
One of my favourite plants is taurepo (Rhabdothamnus solandri) or the New Zealand gloxinia. From a distance it is a pretty non-descript small, bushy or twiggy shrub, with a slightly shaggy appearance because of the brown hairs which are variably present on its grey-green leaves and stems. It grows to around 2m tall. When you get closer it reveals its pretty trumpet shaped orange or reddish flowers striped with yellow – not unlike a circus tent. Taurepo is a rupestral plant, meaning that it grows on shallow soils or directly on rock. It is found throughout the North Island, but mostly north of Manawatū. It is not common in forest, but will grow out on open bluffs or cliff faces.
Taurepo is such a distinctive plant that it could not be confused with anything else in New Zealand. It has flowers present throughout the year, which helps with identification, but the flowers, and the leaves, can be quite variable throughout the country. It is endemic (only found in New Zealand) and also a monotypic genus (it is the only species within that genus) and the only member of its botanical family (the Gesneriaceae) in New Zealand, although it is quite possible that plant taxonomists will split the group into more than one species in future. There are particularly distinctive examples found at Maunganui Bluff (on the West Coast of Northland) and North Cape. Its closest relatives are found on Lord Howe Island and in Chile. Being endemic at the genus level indicates it probably arrived in Aotearoa a comparatively long time ago (hundreds of thousands of years ago). Generally speaking, the higher the level of endemism, the more unique the species and the more likely they are to be threatened. Kiwi for example are endemic at the Order level.
It’s latin name literally means “rod (Rhabdo) shrub (thamnus)” in Greek and it is named after Daniel Solander who accompanied James Cook and Joseph Banks on their voyage here in 1769. It was collected by them from “dry woods in the vicinity of the Bay of Islands” and this area is known as the “type locality” for the species. Whangaroa and Kerikeri are the type locality for many indigenous species, reflecting the early visits by western naturalists (particularly the brothers Alan and Richard Cunningham, botanists who visited Northland in 1826-27 and 1833-34 respectively). Taurepo was given its latin name by Alan Cunningham in 1826.
The trumpet shaped flower is adapted to pollination by birds – particularly the endemic honeyeaters – the tūī, tīeke (saddleback), korimako (bellbird) and hīhī (stitchbird). Of these species only the tūī occurs naturally in Northland now and lack of pollinators is probably the main threat to taurepo, although introduced pests browse the leaves and flowers as well. The cheeky waxeye, which is self-introduced from Australia (and whose Māori name, tauhou, meaning ‘stranger’ or ‘unfamiliar’ indicates how recently they arrived) have been observed piercing the base of the taurepo flower to get at the nectar. This bypasses the anther (where the pollen is produced) and the stigma (where the pollen enters the female reproductive parts) and doesn’t assist the plant in reproducing.
Taurepo are regarded as ‘not threatened’, but a lack of pollinators, and the fact it is palatable, shows how important pest control is – not only for wildlife, but for our distinctive plants too.