Topic: Karaka Street (TDN 14/07/2012)

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Karaka St 

Karaka Street celebrates Corynocarpus laevigatus, a widely distributed evergreen tree endemic to New Zealand. Typically found in coastal forests of the North Island, karaka ranges as far south as Westport and Banks Peninsula, and even to the Chatham Islands.

According to legend, karaka was brought from the Māori homeland. Sometimes trees are found inland, planted in groves indicating former kainga sites. The common name karaka comes from the Māori language, and has become the Māori term for the colour orange, from the colour of the fruit.

An alternative name, little used, is New Zealand Laurel. In the Chatham Islands its local name in the Moriori language is kopi. The soft bark of the kopi trees has long been used for the carving of dendroglyphs. In late 1998 there were 147 known remaining kopi trees with dendroglyphs.

Karaka provides protection for smaller birds during the winter. A good food source for many species, especially birds, it bears fruit in winter, at a time of shortage of resources. It is also a pioneer species, protecting and enriching the soil, and facilitating colonisation by other species. Young plants, though, are frost-tender and sensitive to cold.

The tree will naturalise in suitable habitats, is common in cultivation and widely available for sale. Sometimes it is too successful, and it is regarded as a serious pest species in Hawaii for native ecosystems.

In pre-European times, it was greatly valued as food second only to kumara, but the toxicity of the fruit needs care when handling. The kernels are cooked, and then soaked in running water before the poisonous karakin is completely leached out. If the processing is careless, symptoms of poisoning include violent convulsions and severe muscle spasms.

The first botanic description of karaka was by Banks and Solander, who named it Merretia lucida, different from its present Latin name, but they recognised its affiliation with the laurel family. Karaka is one of many New Zealand plants whose story is included in the exhibition Shadowing Venus, at Puke Ariki opening in July.

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