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Volume 2, 1869
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Art. XVI.—An account of the Puka (Meryta Sinclairii, Seem.)

[Read before the Auckland Institute, June 7, 1869.]

This rare plant was originally discovered at the head of Whangururu Bay by Mr. Colenso, who sent specimens of the foliage to Kew; specimens from the same locality were forwarded also by the late Dr. Sinclair, to whom it was pointed out by Mr. Colenso, and these appear to have formed the only material for the original description of the plant by Dr. Hooker, in the “Flora Novæ Zelandiæ,” under the name of Botryodendrum Sinclairii. Only a single tree was found, which was protected by a fence, and tabued by the natives, by whom it was stated to have been brought from the Poor Knights' Islands, and who were greatly astonished at Mr. Colenso's frequent visits to the locality, during several successive years, in the vain hope of procuring flowers and fruit.

Mr. William Mair subsequently found the tree, and after several visits succeeded in procuring specimens of the leaves and fruit, which were given by him to Dr. Sinclair, who forwarded them to Dr. Hooker at Kew, and from these specimens the still-imperfect description in the “Handbook of the New Zealand Flora,” was drawn.

At a later date, Dr. Sinclair again visited the locality, and found that the

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tree,—the only one known to Europeans prior to the recent discovery— had been cut down.

In a recent visit, made in company with Captain Hutton to the Taranga Islands, specially to search for the Puka, I had the good fortune to find a few trees in various stages of inflorescence and fruit, and have drawn up the following notes, illustrative of the specimens now exhibited from that locality.*

The Puka differs (so far as is known) from other members of the genus Meryta, in its strictly dioecious character, all the other species being described as polygamous. It is a small tree, attaining the height of from twelve to twenty-five feet; trunk, stout or slender, irregularly and sparingly branched; bark, dark-brown, with numerous warty excrescences; branches, very stout, showing the scars of fallen leaves; leaves, densely crowded, twenty to thirty together, at the tips of the branches, with a few large deciduous scales amongst the petioles of the youngest, 9″ to 30″ long (including the petioles), 4″ to 10″ wide, very coriaceous, obovate-oblong, rarely oblong, usually contracted below the middle, with stout lateral veins, margin slightly waved, with a few large crenatures, the whole edged with a remarkable marginal nerve; petioles, stout, 4″–14″ long, with a broad attachment, irregularly striated, not jointed with the blade. Panicles, stout, terminal, much branched, from 8″–16″ long, branches jointed. Male—Primary branches about eight, more slender than in the female; secondary branches 1″–3″ long, flowers sessile, crowded in tetramerous clusters, with an ovate bract at the base of each cluster, and two minute bractlets below each flower; sepals, 4-valvate, ligulate, ultimately somewhat flexuose, petals 0; stamens, 4 inserted beneath a corrugated glandular disk, anthers lobed, oblong. Female—Stouter and shorter than in the male, branches crowded, primary branches 10–15; flowers solitary or crowded, with a bullate, notched bract at the base of each; ovary ovate, with 3–6, usually 4–5, stigmas, united below, tips recurved, staminodia invariably present. Fruit roundish-oblong, black, shining, slightly angled when young, becoming even as it approaches maturity; seeds 5, curved, much compressed, about three-eights of an inch in length, black, or dark-brown, intensely hard.

The entire plant is more or less resinous, and the bark is easily wounded, producing large callosities as it heals, wood white and brittle. Not more than eight plants were observed, of which six were in various stages of flower and fruit. These grew in situations fully exposed to the violent south-westerly gales, but owing to the remarkable marginal nerve, not a leaf was found torn or injured in any way; in this respect presenting a strong contrast to Pisonia umbellifera, which grew with it, and of which scarcely a leaf could be found entire; in fact the external leaves were often torn into shreds from the violence of the wind.

It is not unlikely that a true Botryodendrum may be found on the Kermadec Islands, and it would be highly interesting to ascertain if our plant is found on the Three Kings' group, of the botany of which we are entirely ignorant. The Puka must, in any case, be considered one of the rare plants of the world. As far as we have seen, the solitary plant found on the main land was not indigenous; and it is only known to Europeans in the locality now placed on record. Its existence upon the Poor Knights' rests solely upon Maori authority, and it is known not to be found in an indigenous state on the Fanal Islands, or on the Kawau. The only unsearched localities in which there is even a slight probability of its occurrence, are the north-west side of the Little Barrier, and the Three Kings.

[Footnote] * I was unable to obtain good drawings from the recent specimens, owing to their having been spoiled by sea-water, from exposure in an open boat during a severe gale on our return.

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It is a matter for congratulation that the plant is already established under cultivation, as the specimens found at the Taranga Islands grow in situations where they are peculiarly open to destruction.

The Maoris at Ohora stated that they, some years back, planted a young tree on one of the Fanal Islands, which is still living although it has grown but little.