Kaka-beak (Clianthus puniceus)

Also known as: Kowhai ngutukaka, lobster claw, New Zealand parrot’s-bill, parrot’s-bill
GenusClianthus (1)
SizeHeight: 90 – 180 cm (2)
Leaf length: 7.5 - 15 cm (2)
Flower length: up to 7.5 cm (2)

Classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List 2007 (1).

The kaka-beak is a stunning shrub known for its dense clusters of brilliant red, claw-like flowers, which drip from arching branches in summer (3) (4). Indeed, even the Latin name alludes to the splendour of the species’ brilliantly coloured flowers, with Clianthus puniceus deriving from the Greek kleos, meaning ‘glory’, anthos, meaning ‘flower’, and puniceus, meaning ‘reddish-purple’ (5). Its common name comes from the resemblance of the flowers to the beak of the kaka; a large species of parrot that used to be common in New Zealand forests (6). Typical of members of the pea family (Leguminosae), this plant has long green leaves made up of smaller, opposing pinnate leaflets (2), and flowers are succeeded by large dangling pea pods (3). Though rare in the wild, the kaka-beak is widely cultivated and a popular ornamental plant common in gardens across New Zealand, its native country (7).

Just 200 plants are now thought to exist in total, scattered in subpopulations from Northland to Hawkes Bay in New Zealand’s North Island, with the majority in Te Urewera National Park (1) (7).

Found in scrubby forest margins and flaxland (1) at bluffs and cliffs, lake and river margins, road margins, landslide scars and seral communities that have developed following burning (7).

The kaka-beak has flowers with both male and female reproductive organs. The main flowering period is from September to December, although flowering can occur all year round and some plants have two or more flowering periods over a year (7). Birds are generally credited with its pollination, however, the flowers do not appear to produce much nectar and so they may not be critical. The kaka-beak may be mainly self-pollinating as the pollen ripens just as the flowers open up. The dry and floury pollen may quickly fall or roll down the curving keel until it reaches the tip of the stigma and pollinates it (6). Seeds are dispersed in a number of ways. Seeds and pods float, and may be water-dispersed in rivers or on lakes, and when pods dry out they often open out into a sail-like structure, and could be easily carried a considerable distance by wind, with seeds attached (7).

The kaka-beak is commonly attacked by insects and browsed by deer, goats and domestic livestock. The plants, and in particular seedlings, are also highly vulnerable to attack by introduced slugs (Deroceias spp.) and brown snails (Helix aspersa), and the Armillaria fungus is known to kill cultivated seedlings (7).

The significant kaka-beak declines seen can probably by attributed to the combined impact of habitat destruction, browsing by goats, pigs, deer and introduced brown snails, and the fact that the species requires permanently open or early successional sites (1) (7). Due to its habitat requirements, the kaka-beak was probably never a common plant, and may owe its survival partly to the old-time Maori who cultivated it in their villages (6). Today, a large, secure cultivated population exists, although it appears to contain very limited genetic diversity (7).

Most of the 200 remaining wild specimens occur within the boundaries of the Te Urewera National Park, and the extensive cultivated populations do provide potential for reintroductions. A Recovery Plan has also been devised for this popular wild shrub, outlining management strategies to maintain existing populations and increase total numbers of wild plants (7).

For more information on the kaka-beak see:

Authenticated (18/10/07) by Lawrie Metcalf.

  1. IUCN Red List (December, 2009)