The name Karaka comes from the Maori language for orange, and the fruit was an important food item for the early Maori. In the wild, Karaka is widespread in coastal and lowland forests throughout the North Island and in the upper South Island. Visitors to Tiritiri Matangi in the Hauraki Gulf will be familiar with Karaka; when the island’s reforestation programme was launched in 1994, it was one of the trees planted to attract native birds, particularly the kereru and tui.
In exposed situations Karaka will grow to around 8m, reaching up to 15m in an open environment and, providing it doesn’t dry out as a young tree, will grow in most soil conditions. While it’s generally tolerant of salt spray and wind, Karaka is frost-tender and sensitive to the cold when young. It’s also quick growing and can reach 4 metres in just 5 years, but while it grows easily from seed, cuttings are difficult to strike. Karaka actually grows so easily it has the potential to become a pest in some areas. In Hawaii, where it was originally planted over 100 years ago, Karaka is regarded as a serious weed pest and programmes to monitor and control its spread are in place.
The somewhat unremarkable small greenish-white karaka flowers appear from late winter through to spring with the fruit ripening from green to that eye-catching orange in mid-summer to autumn.
Karaka can play a number of roles in landscape design. Those with a native plant focus will include Karaka but the flat glossy leaves, which can be up to 20cm long, work well in a tropical setting. It can also be used as a handsome specimen or street tree.
And, in spite of its ability to flourish, Karaka can also be the answer on smaller urban sites where space is limited but screening is required. Karaka trims very well either as a shaped specimen or pleached hedge.
“Because of its size, ability to be pruned and evergreen, glossy foliage, Karaka is a welcome addition to the garden,” says a landscape architect Zones Landscaping Specialists. “This versatility means it’s equally appealing in a formal garden or in a sub-tropical planting scheme. The berries not only provide a jewel-like display in late summer, but attract an abundance of native birdlife.”
Unfortunately, those berries have a downside and the landscape architect advises caution when positioning the species. “The berries can stain light coloured paving materials and the kernel can be a nuisance in swimming pools and water features.” The kernel also contains a highly poisonous toxin which can be fatal for dogs. “Karaka are best planted amongst a generous garden bed where they are free to flourish.” The landscape architect likes to under plant Karaka with Clivia miniata. “Both the flower and leaf colour pair well with Karaka, providing the perfect sun protection for the Clivia below.”
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