Ti kouka: a feast for birds big and small
Alfie here, and today I’m talking about another bird-friendly plant in Wellington, and interviewing long time Zealandia volunteer guide, and conservationist, Des Smith. I flew up to meet him in his garden in Ngaio, in a bush-lined street, full of native trees. Here’s the transcript, from my ‘Stoatskine’ reporter’s notebook.
Alfie: What a great garden you have here Des, I can see totara, kākā beak (!), muehlenbeckia, kohekohe, some great nīkau, coprosma for the lizards, and – watch out for these – onga onga to attract red and yellow admiral butterflies, plus some great cabbage trees. So many to choose from! Which is your pick for a bird-friendly garden, Des?
Des: Thanks Alfie, well the truth is, a variety of plants is always a good idea, so the garden is ‘friendly’ throughout the year. What I’ve chosen is what you call the cabbage tree, but a more specific and better name is tī kōuka, or as botanists know it, Cordyline australis.
Great. We’ve got lots of those in the valley too.
Des: You can see those lovely big clusters of flowers. They’ll soon produce small white berries that birds love to eat. I’ve seen several kereru at a time on just one of these trees, and I’ve seen tauhou (silvereyes) and tui feeding on insects in the tree as well as the berries.
Alfie: Yum. Tell me Des, what makes them a special choice for you?
Des: I lived in England for a while and saw a lot of tī kōuka growing in parks and gardens in the south. They were even called Torquay palms. And the name Cordyline australis wasn’t much help, as people thought they must be from Australia! But of course, ‘australis’ just means from the south – and that’s here. It’s their home.
Alfie: And ours.
Des: Exactly. So I thought, since they are loved and widely planted in the warm parts of England, I’d like people at home to enjoy them too. And the first ones I planted were right here.
Alfie: Any tips for growing them in a garden situation?
Des: They enjoy moist soil conditions, so keep them well mulched. In nature, their discarded leaves do a good job of that.
Alfie: And the ones in the street?
Des: (grins) I planted those too Alfie, and a few more besides – around the streets on berms and other public areas. Plus the Bell’s track conservation group that I look after has planted several, along with lots of other trees and shrubs.
Alfie: Wow! A guerilla gardener! You are really passionate about this, aren’t you Des.
Des: You see Alfie; 150 years ago people had holiday baches in Ngaio, to enjoy what Friedrich Krull called “the indescribable beauty” of the bush. He wrote about “thousands of singing birds, with prettily coloured plumage – the most common being a small green parrot with a long tail, red topknot, and blue feathers in its wings”.
Des: Thousands of them Alfie. And kaka too. Here at home in the Wellington hills.
Alfie: We were quiet for a moment, and then, after chatting some more and exploring Des’s wonderful garden, I took off to the west, and was flying in a gentle arc towards the valley, when a sudden gust lifted me into a patch of swirling mist. I heard a fluttering sound, soft at first, and then growing louder. Looking far ahead I could see thousands of singing birds, and far below, a hillside of indescribable beauty.
KEY TĪ KŌUKA FACTS
- Produce sweetly perfumed flowers in large clusters in Spring and early Summer. Small whitish berries are formed that birds love.
- Can grow to over 12 metres tall, and will survive vigorous pruning.
- Frost tender when young, they prefer full sunlight
- Tī kōuka re good “colonising” species – they grow happily on bare ground or exposed places. Their strong root system helps stop soil slip on steep slopes.
- Because they tolerate wet soil, they are a useful species for planting on streambanks to control bank erosion.
Des Smith and a ti kouka. Photo by Alfred Kākā (main image)
Large clusters of scented flowers form berries that birds love. Photo by Alfred Kākā