Like the nikau palm, kiekie reminds us of the tropical affiliations of elements of our native flora. As the only member of the screw-pine family present within New Zealand, Freycinetia banksii truly is a tropical outlier. The most famous members of this family – from the genus, Pandanus – may be familiar to those who have been fortunate enough to spend some time on tropical islands in the Pacific. They bear heads of sword-shaped foliage on branched trunks (like short, very stout cabbage trees), and possess the distinctive feature of sending roots from their trunks down to the ground.
This instinct to generate roots from the main stem provides kiekie (and other species of Freycinetia) with the mechanism by which they climb trees and cliffs, in their search for light. As it grows upwards, the aerial roots assist in anchoring kiekie to its support.
Freycinetia is a fairly large genus of more than 170 species, distributed mainly through tropical and sub-tropical areas of Asia and Oceania. New Zealand’s sole species of Freycinetia is the southernmost member of the genus.
The way in which kiekie drapes the trunks of some of our tallest forest trees is an improbable sight, as its dense masses of foliage look like they should peel away from their support. However, they cling very effectively, forming cascades of dark green, recurved leaves. When support is unavailable, kiekie can also form substantial colonies on the ground, as pictured in the photograph above, on the left.
Within the garden, kiekie can be used either as a climber or as a sprawling, ground-dwelling shrub. It is fairly easy to cultivate, especially if given adequate moisture and a position in semi-shade during its early stages (although it should be noted that it is relatively slow-growing). Once established, it is tolerant of a wide range of conditions, including dry periods and a certain level of exposure (though consistently high winds will affect the appearance of the leaves). This resilience is evidenced by a planting that I have seen in the centre of Auckland, in a street behind the City Mission – where several kiekie have performed well under the limitations imposed by the urban environment.
The flowers and subsequent fruit of kiekie are unusual, and bear a shape that is well described by their Māori name, ‘ureure’ (derived from the word for the male organ, to state it in terms that will not generate unwelcome search engine results).
The fact that the flowers and fruit have their own title in Te Reo Māori alludes to the value that Māori placed on them. Both the flowers and fruit of kiekie are said to taste good, as do the bracts that sit at the base of the flowers. In the photograph below on the left, the bracts (which were known to Māori as tawhara) have turned brown. They are edible in their fresh state (upon the appearance of the flowers) – at which stage they are white.
The flowers of Freycinetia banksii are also particularly attractive to our native bats, who traditionally played a significant role as pollinators of kiekie. Unfortunately, these animals are now very rare or extinct through large patches of kiekie’s range. Although not in the same league as our flax (Phormium spp.), kiekie leaves were traditonally used for weaving – including the preparation of sandals and a particular type of rain cape, called para kiekie.
Freycinetia banksii naturally occurs from the Far North (Te Paki) down to as far as Dusky Sound in the south – although it is not as common in the South Island (which makes sense for a plant with tropical origins).