Also known as the NZ Pepper Tree, Kawakawa’s large, heart-shaped, fleshy leaves – frequently bearing holes left by feasting looper moth caterpillars – make it easily recognisable.
The best known cultivar is macropiper excelsum, an impressive, densely branched coastal cultivar that grows to around 5 metres throughout the North Island and in the upper half of the South Island. It’s one of the signature plants in these areas, often found alongside bush tracks and coastal walkways.
Kawakawa is reasonably wind tolerant but is frost tender when young. Mature plants will tolerate medium frosts. It prefers free draining soil and is an ideal plant for difficult shady spots in the garden. (The fact that it forms a dense branching shrub when growing in the wild see Kawakawa used for coastal restoration planting).
Macropiper species, also popular in garden design, are excelsum psittacorum from the Kermadecs, macropiper Melchior from the Three Kings Island and excelsum variegate with its striking creamy-yellow variegated foliage. The young trees, particularly variegate, make excellent container specimens.
Both the male and female Kawakawa produce tiny flowers on spikes, however only the female trees produce fleshy berry-like fruits that ripen to shades of yellow and orange in January and February. And, like Karaka, attract native birds, such as the kereru and tui.
Kawakawa was an important medicinal plant for Maori who used the root, fruit, seeds and leaves in a variety of ways to treat conditions ranging from cuts and wounds to stomach pains, rheumatism, kidney ailments and toothache. And while the name Kawakawa refers to the bitter taste of the leaves – the plant belongs to the same family as kava and black pepper. Adventurous cooks claim the leaves add a delicious zing to savoury dishes and the fruit has a ‘sweet passion-fruity flavour’. Choosing the tender leaves, the bugs have already made a meal of, is recommended.
Due to its ability to withstand deep shade, a landscape designer suggests using Kawakawa under trees to add bulk to south side borders, and to boundary garden beds. “With its deep green foliage to ground level, Kawakawa provides a dense, lush, evergreen background.”
Depending on the size of the space, the various macropiper cultivates work well with associate plants, such as Astelie banksia, Houpara, Five finger and various native flazes and ferns. However, they’re also an effective addition to a subtropical design, combining harmoniously with hibiscus, vireya rhododendrons and some palms.
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