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New Zealand Plants and their Story

The Native Fuchsia

The Native Fuchsia.

There is hardly a forest in New Zealand, either primeval or almost obliterated, where the native fuchsia, the kotukutuku of the Maoris, with its thick irregular trunk and hanging strips of brown and papery page 150bark, may not be seen. Should the time be winter, then will the tree be leafless; but if summer, then there will be abundance of soft, thin leaves, green above, but beneath pale and silvery.

The deciduous habit is very rare amongst New Zealand plants, being confined to two or three, for naked boughs in winter are in harmony with a cold and frozen soil, since roots cannot suck up water if it be too cold, and the presence of leaves under these circumstances would be worse than useless. But where the climate is mild and equable, as in this country, then there is no need for leaves to fall, since they can do their complex work more or less efficiently all the year round. The fall of the fuchsia's leaf was not unnoticed by those keen nature-students, the ancient Maoris. "Where wast thou at the fall of the kotukutuku?" would be demanded of the laggard who had been absent when his presence was urgently needed during that special season of labour, the planting of the kumara.

The genus Fuchsia derives its name from a German botanist, Leonhard Fuchs (Anglice, Fox), who lived during the early half of the sixteenth century. It contains more than fifty species, which, with the exception of three New-Zealanders, are all South Americans. From certain of these latter have been raised by the gardener's skill the large-flowered and brilliantly coloured varieties so popular in gardens.

The New Zealand species consist of the tree mentioned above (F. excorticata); a shrub, or at times a scrambling-liane (F. Colensoi); and a rather rare trailing or partly climbing sea-shore plant, found only in the north of Auckland, but not uncommon as an ornamental pot-plant (F. procumbens).The last is distinguished from the other two by its erect flowers and its very large and extremely handsome red berries.

The flowers of Fuchsia excorticata are produced very early in the year, and some even before the tree is in leaf. The calyx, green and unattractive in most flowers, forms here the conspicuous part of the blossom. Below, it is attached to the ovary; then it is constricted, and finally expanded into a funnel-shaped tube, which is divided at its margin into four acute segments. The colour is green and purple, but it soon fades into a dull red. The petals, four in number, are inconspicuous: they are inserted at the throat of the calyx. There are eight stamens. The style is slender and elongated, and terminates in a little knob, the stigma. The pollen is of a blue colour, and adds page 151to the attractiveness of the flower. It is also extremely viscid. Both stamens and style are very variable in length; and thereby hangs a tale, which as yet can be only half told.

This variability in length of style and stamens leads to there being three forms of flowers, which may be distinguished as—(a) the long-styled, where the stigma projects far beyond the mouth of the funnel, within which the stamens lie hidden; (b) the short-styled, where the filaments are long, and almost equal the quite short and but slightly projecting style; and (c) the mid-styled, which is a form intermediate between the other two.

These different forms of flower are not without an object. Experimentally it has been found that in many cases it is advantageous for a flower to be fertilised with pollen other than its own, and ample provision is made in nature for such cross-fertilisation,* as it is called. In the case of F. excorticata the pollen of the long-styled form is usually immature or wanting—in other words, the flower is a female one. On the contrary, the short-and mid-styled flowers produce an abundance of serviceable pollen. The transmission of the pollen from one flower to another, so frequently the work of insects or the wind, is here performed by birds, especially the bell-bird and tui, whose heads become dyed blue with the sticky pollen as they pass from blossom to blossom in their greedy eagerness for the honey therein contained. The birds' work in time becomes manifest, through the long-styled flowers producing berries; whereas the short-and mid-styled flowers appear to be incapable of fertilisation from their own pollen, and bear but few berries. The above are the general details as stated in the "Forest Flora"; but the whole matter requires fresh investigation, and especially experiments conducted regarding the powers of self-fertilisation of the short-and mid-styled flowers.

The fruits of the fuchsia are a favourite food of the pigeon and kaka, and the seeds are distributed far and wide by these birds. They are insipid, but not unpleasing, especially to a youthful palate. To the Maori they were a welcome change of diet in a country devoid of luscious fruits, and a special name, "konini," was applied to them.

The timber of the fuchsia is almost indestructible. It is extremely strong and tough, but the gnarled trunk is of little value commercially.

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It is, however, an ornamental wood, and can be used for inlaying and turnery. As a firewood its badness is almost incredible, and truly none but the newest of chums would dream of using it when camped in the forest. "Bucket-of-water wood," it has been termed; and the rather tall story goes how a trunk, which had been used for a back log to a fire for a whole year, upon being finally cast into the open air as worthless, put forth green shoots, and grew again into a tree!

As a garden plant F. excorticata is not unpleasing; but for a small garden F. Colensoi is more to be recommended. Neither species will tolerate much frost, although F. excorticata is abundant in the cold mountain districts of the South Island. There is a distinctly hand-some form with purple leaves; but this is rare, and only in cultivation in the gardens of one or two enthusiasts.