Shrubby tororaro (Muehlenbeckia astonii) makes its distinctive presence known throughout the country, particularly in coastal areas. Up close, it is a striking specimen, most noticeably for its brilliant green, heart-shaped leaves and pinkish flowers which, in winter, reveal a tangle of slender, interlocking branches. Setting it apart from other native shrubs, its branches come in a range of shades: orange, reddish brown and dark red – the colour of a good pinot noir.
Stand back a bit further, however, and shrubby tororaro is quite the master of camouflage.
In fact, the plant merged so well into the dry eastern Wairarapa shrublands, it managed to elude even the expert eyes of one of the great plant hunters – William Colenso, who made more than one journey through its habitat near the Wairarapa coastline. Eventually, near the coast at Wainuiomata, shrubby tororaro revealed itself to another well-practised plant spotter, Bernard Aston – and was named for him in 1910.
Aston’s namesake is as robust as it is captivating. The plant can reach heights of up to 4m and can live for over 80 years. An illustration of the Wainuiomata area has survived from the time of Aston’s discovery, over a century ago, featuring a full-grown shrub in the wild beside a large rock. That same scene nowadays is practically identical – the rock has moved about a metre downhill, but the plant remains undisturbed.
The plant’s long innings can be attributed to its ability to replace its branches as they are damaged. Whenever a branch dies and allows light to pass through the gap it has left, another branch is primed and ready to grow into the space. As well as being durable in years, shrubby tororaro can withstand tough conditions, including high winds and severe dry spells. It is practically drought-proof – courtesy of an extensive and deep root system that cuts through rocks and gravels to find groundwater seeping through the hillslopes. It has even been known, given its knack for regenerating branches, to resurrect afterfire. Even if higher parts of the shrub have been burnt to a crisp, the plant begins the business of sending out new shoots and will soon return to its full extent.
Shrubby tororaro is considered a taonga of great importance for Māori. In pre-colonial times, it was valued for its medicinal properties and the branches were used to make nets for catching tuna. It also is a host for several species of insects, which become a significant food source for native birds and lizards – which then act as seed dispersers, dining on the small, white fruit the plant produces and spreading the seeds widely.
Sadly, the plant is now a threatened species – having faced hazards such as habitat fragmentation (with agricultural expansion encroaching on coastal areas), trampling by introduced species and livestock, as well as slugs and snails feasting on its seeds. It can also be difficult for shrubby tororaro to self-propagate, as male and female flowers occur on separate plants – so isolated plants cannot reproduce.
Gardeners may be the key to its survival. Due to its tough nature and ease of care, the shrub is popular and often planted in urban spaces. In Wairarapa, it graces Featherston’s main street, the entrance to Queen Elizabeth Park in Masterton and further afield, the traffic islands near Te Papa in Wellington.
Story by Tony Silbery and Erin Kavanagh-Hall.