The germination of the seeds of a mysterious, native plant in Wellington has provided hope for the future of Pua o te Rēinga, or dactylanthus.
The news left kaitiaki (environmental guardian) Gemma Wright in tears, comparing the moment to hearing a whānau member was entering the world shortly.
“We just finished our first hui on setting up the kaitiaki rōpū… it was like a sign, time to bring everyone together again and continue our learning,” Wright told 1 NEWS.
The iwi member of Taranaki Whānau, Ngāti Maniapoto and Te Ātihaunui-a-Pāpārangi was responsible for safely transporting Pua o te Rēinga seeds between Pureora Forest Park in the central North Island and Zealandia and Otari-Wilton’s Bush in Wellington when they were planted in October last year.
Ōtari-Wilton Bush’s conservation and science advisor, Karin van der Walt, says it’s “really rewarding” after carrying out experiments with separate seeds in a range of conditions for nine months.
Some seeds that have germinated have been incubated, some have been kept in the Ōtari bush in soil-filled petri dishes similar to Zealandia’s bush without direct sunlight, some have germinated in a gelling agent and some were refrigerated before being transferred to the bush.
“I am really, really excited,” van der Walt said.
“It is significant because with dactylanthus it takes five years before it’s seen above the ground so we don’t know what makes it grow, what makes it germinate.”
She said the experiment has shown for the first time that neither temperature or the presence of a host root is a factor in germination of the plant.
The parasitic plant is difficult to spot on the forest floor and is in serious decline due to predators including possums, and historic land clearing wiping out populations.
The dactylanthus attaches to a host tree at soil level or just under the surface with a placenta-like attachment to get most of its nutrients.
“A big thing for us is just to understand what is happening… and we can improve the ways that we look after them and the way that we do future plantings… but also it helps us understand how to store the seeds in the long-term.”
She said it’s an area that’s lacking in research for a plant with many complexities.
The next stage is waiting for the primary root, the radicle, to appear.
van der Walt said the dactylanthus will then be placed by a five finger, or whauwhaupaku seedling, with the aim being that the parasitic plant will use this as a host plant.
If successful, this could see the method applied to future planting sites, with van der Walt questioning whether the plant sometimes runs out of energy at this point in the wild after struggling to find a host plant in the vicinity by root.
A wānanga (education hui) will be held in Wellington shortly where mātauranga (Māori knowledge) on the plant will be shared and further conservation plans will be made.