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Volume 18, 1885
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Art. XLVI.—On Clianthus puniceus, Sol.

[Read before the Hawke's Bay Philosophical Institute, 14th December, 1885.]

For many years this truly handsome plant has at various times largely occupied my thoughts. Partly from its great beauty and comparative variety; partly from the large and cosmopolitan Order to which it naturally belongs, Leguminosæ, (so common in the neighbouring countries of Australia and Tasmania,) being so poorly represented in New Zealand; and partly from its genus being small and almost endemic. Indeed, I might go almost a step further, and add, that there is a kind of veil or mystery shrouding it, which hereafter may be clearly explained. In few words, that “mystery” is this: that I have never met with it growing truly wild and common, as all the other indigenous plants are found, although it may have been, like some of our genera, originally confined to one special area. Indeed, I think that, had it not been early raised from seed and generally cultivated by the colonists, (as well as at Home,) it would very nearly have become extinct, like some other New Zealand plants. And in this respect it seems to me to belong to that small class of esteemed plants that were long and assiduously cultivated by the ancient Maori people—viz.: the Taro (Colocasia antiquorum, Schott.), various sorts; the Kumara, or sweet potato (Ipomœa chrysorhiza), many varieties; the Aute (Broussonetia papyrifera), Paper Mulberry; the Tamure, or Awanga (Phormium colensoi), var., striped New Zealand Flax; and the Tipara (Cordyline, sp. undescribed), Broad-leaved Cabbage-tree. In one or two points, however, the Clianthus differs widely from them: (1) It bears seed abundantly; and, (2), it flourishes in almost all spots where it has been planted. Yet, in connection with this, I may observe that, although I have not unfrequently noticed a large shrub of Clianthus bearing hundreds of fruitful pods of seeds, that were left on the plant to ripen, burst, and fall to the ground, I have scarcely seen an instance of any of those many seeds springing spontaneously from beneath or around the parent plant; and this great peculiarity obtains also in a large measure among the Phormium species.

On my arrival in New Zealand, (Bay of Islands, 1834,) I first saw this fine plant in full bloom in the gardens of the missionaries; naturally I was struck with its imposing appearance, as I had never seen it, nor anything like it, before; indeed at that time it was scarcely known at Home. I very soon cultivated it in my own garden. In all my travels at the North, extending over several years, and crossing and recrossing the country in all directions, I never met with the Clianthus growing

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wild or naturally, save on two or three of the smaller islets in that Bay,—notably on a small islet named Taranaki, in the mouth of the Kerikeri River. I have also seen it occasionally in deserted food plantations, and near the residences (occupied or abandoned) of the old Maoris; still it was a plant very well known among them.

The plant, however, was early seen in New Zealand by Cook and his co-voyagers, on his first voyage, and no doubt on this East Coast, and perhaps more than once at the different places where he touched and went on shore on that voyage, the time of the year being that of the flowering season of this plant—as at Tolaga Bay, Mercury Bay, and the Bay of Islands. Specimens of the plant were at that time taken Home by Sir Joseph Banks and Dr. Solander, and the plant was named Clianthus puniceus by Dr. Solander, who established its genus. Forster, who accompanied Cook on his second voyage, (and who has done so much towards making known the botany of this country,) probably never saw it, although here in the proper season for observing it, as his visits were confined to the South Island, where, I have reasons for believing, the plant was not originally found. The more modern botanists, also, as Lesson and Raoul, whose researches and discoveries were mainly confined to the South Island, make no mention in their works of having met with it; and the two Cunninghams, who were also early in New Zealand at the North, and who spent some time there (especially Richard Cunningham), also never saw it.

However, it was first published by George Don, in 1832, in his “General System of Botany,” who changed its original name of Clianthus (known also to him) to Donia punicea. His description of the plant is a good one (a portion of its character I extract):—“Vexillum ovate - lanceolate, acuminate, rather shorter than the keel, reflexed; Wings lanceolate, acuminate, half the length of the keel,” etc. “Native of New Zealand, where it was first discovered by Sir Joseph Banks and Dr. Solander, who gave it the name of Clianthus puniceus.” (loc. cit., vol. ii., p. 468.) Of course, Don could only have known of those New Zealand specimens from which he drew up his description; he does not say why he changed the name of the plant given to it by its discoverer, which, curiously enough, he also gave his own name to! though he says it was “named in honour of Mr. George Don, of Forfar,” his own father.

This was followed by Dr. Lindley, in 1834, in a more elaborate account of this plant, in a paper “read December 2, 1834,” before the Horticultural Society of London, and published in 1835, in their “Transactions,” 2nd series, vol. i., p. 519, accompanied with a large and well executed coloured drawing of it, from the pencil of the celebrated flower painter, Miss Drake. This drawing, I may further observe, was taken from

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a fresh specimen of the plant “raised in England from seed gathered by the missionaries in New Zealand, where it is said to be called ‘Kowhaingutu-kaka,’ or Parrot's-bill, and to grow to the size of a large tree” (sic)—“in England, however, it has not reached beyond 4 feet in height.” The coloured drawing of the plant is a bold, clear, and good one, and shows the flowers much as Don had described them, with their “wings lanceolate and acuminate.” At that time Dr. Lindley restored to the plant its original name of Clianthus puniceus, which it has properly retained ever since.

During my early visits to the East Coast, but always late in the summer, (1838–1843,) landing at Wharekahika (Hicks' Bay), and travelling on foot to Poverty Bay, in and out among the Maori villages, I noticed a few scattered plants of Clianthus, though much as I had formerly seen them in the North.

In 1844 I came to Hawke's Bay (second time) to permanently reside, and it was not very long before I obtained plants of Clianthus (from seed or cuttings) from the Maoris for my garden. In due time, when these grew and flowered, I noticed a marked difference between their flowers and those of the northern plant, with which I was so well acquainted. At first I did not pay great attention to it, having vastly too much of other and more important matters to attend to, but in course of time, and as my plants grew so tall and to such a large size, I examined them a little more closely, and then I discovered what I believed to be a true specific difference, or, at all events, showing a marked variety, if the newly-detected characters should prove constant. Somewhere in the decade of 1840, I sent specimens of this southern form of Clianthus (with other plants) to Kew, to Sir W. J. Hooker, calling his attention to the differences I had noticed; in the course of (say) the following year, Sir W. J. Hooker, in reply, said that they at Home who had examined the dried specimens sent could not detect any material difference.

After that time the matter slept, as far as I was concerned. Of late years, however, having the southern form (as I call it) always here in my own garden, and seeing it generally plentifully cultivated in gardens in this town, and in the adjacent country villages and other places, I have been led again to closely examine the plant, and I have found that those differences I had formerly detected still continued. I, therefore, obtained both seeds and plants of the northern form from Auckland, and this year the plants have flowered in my garden; and now, having the opportunity of comparing closely the two forms in a living state, I give briefly the result of my old and new examinations, which will serve sufficiently to point them out.


Clianthus puniceus, Sol. (vera: N. form).

Flower 3 inches long, 1 ¼ inch broad; standard ovate, very

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acuminate, sides nearly straight, claw long; wings lanceolate, acuminate, acute; colour a clear lively scarlet.


Clianthus maximus, Col. (S. form).

Flower 2–2 ¼ inches long, 1 ½ inches broad; standard broadly ovate, acuminate, sides rounded, claw short; wings somewhat oblong, broad, very obtuse (rounded) at apex; colour a less clear red, verging to more of a dark or crimson hue, with a large dark spreading blotch at base of the standard; flower broader; and the substance of the petals, especially the keel, thicker, more coriaceous or skinny, and finely wrinkled. The leaves also of this species are larger, some leaflets measuring more than two inches; these are also more membranous and glabrous than in the northern form; and the whole plant is stouter, rises higher, generally from 6 to 10, or even 12, feet.

The principal differences, however, which are clearly apparent at first sight, (especially if the flowers of the two forms are compared together in a living state), consist in their relative sizes, in the shape of their standards, and more especially in their wings, and also in their colours; but whether those differences, though constant, are sufficient to constitute two separate species, or merely varieties, is of little consequence to me—the two forms exist.

And here I may further remark (having very frequently of late years noticed it), that several of our indigenous New Zealand plants, and in particular of genera of which it had always been believed that New Zealand possessed but one species of each genus, have now, at least, two species to each genus; or if not exactly (and beyond all controversy) two species, seeing that the limit of a species can scarcely be clearly defined, then two forms; the southern form being very distinct from the northern one, yet pretty closely resembling it in general appearance. And this I have especially noticed to take place in the Orchid Order: e.g. Dendrobium, Sarcochilus, Bolbophyllum, Gastrodia, Earina, Microtis, and Orthoceras; to which may be added Gratiola, Dianella, Arthropodium, Tupeia, Australina, Hoheria, and many others.

To this mysterious subject, however, of dimorphism (found here again in Clianthus), I hope to return on some future occasion.

In conclusion, I may add, that Lindley's description of Clianthus puniceus agrees with the coloured drawing of the English cultivated one already referred to, in which the alæ or wings are correctly shown to be lanceolate acuminate with acute tips. A. Cunningham's description of the same, in his “Prodromus Novæ Zealandiæ,” (published several years after, 1839), in “Annals of Natural History,” vol. iii., p. 246), is drawn, as he shows, from two sources, the one being “Solander's MSS.

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in Bibl. Banks,” and the other Dr. Lindley's description already mentioned; as at that time of Cunningham's writing his valuable paper in England, he had not seen the plant growing in New Zealand,—although he did afterwards in my garden and elsewhere. Sir D. Hooker, in his “Flora Novæ Zelandiæ,” in describing Clianthus puniceus gives the following: (1. of the genus), “Vexillum ovatum, incumbens v. reflexum, carinam oblongam cymbiformem æquans: alæ lanceolatæ, basi exciso auriculatæ, carina breviores:” and (2. of this species), “Standard ovate, slightly recurved, as long as the keel. Wings lanceolate, sub-falcate, sharp, twice as long as the standard, 1 ½–2 inches long.” Here, however, while his description of the shape of the wings is quite correct, and in agreement with both Don and Lindley, above, viz., “Wings lanceolate, sharp;” there is a manifest error with regard to their size—“twice as long as the standard.” This latter is corrected in his “Handbook,” published several years after (1864), and altered to “half as long as the standard;” while the former description of the shape of the tips of the wings is also altered from “sharp” to “acute or obtuse;” evidently, as I think, to embrace the two states or forms (whether species or varieties) to which I had early called his attention.

Napier, December 10th, 1885.

P.S.—Living flowers of both plants, with mounted dissections showing the diverse forms of their parts, as described in this paper, were exhibited at the ordinary meeting of the Hawke's Bay Philosophical Institute in October, 1885.—W.C.