Kōwhai flowers on the side of Maungawhau on a rainy, windy morning earlier this week. Their yellow stands out against the grey sky. The flowers are yet to fully open.

I passed a kōwhai tree in flower this morning and thought of Emily. The early springtime flowers are opening up one after another and the tūī birds are getting louder and louder. Soon they’ll crowd the kōwhai, turning their beaks bright yellow with pollen. I love to see a puffed up tūī singing in black iridescent tuxedo and white wattle-cravat, so serious, with a dusting of yellow between the eyes.

What would Emily have thought of them as she made her ‘Sophora tetraptera (Kowhai)’ drawing for New Zealand Flowers?

Emily Cumming Harris. ‘Sophora Tetraptera (Kowhai).’ New Zealand Flowers. Puke Ariki Z581.9 HAR.

Tūi in fact pollinate the native kōwhai. The two species have evolved together: bird beak matches the curved shape of the flower that Emily captured in her drawing.

‘Some native plants have evolved along with tūī, and have a give-and-take relationship. Their flowers produce nutritious nectar to attract the bird, which then transfers pollen to other plants, ensuring cross-pollination. The curve and length of the flowers […] and the tūī’s bill are a good match. The anther of each flower species deposits pollen on a specific area of the tūī’s head. When it feeds on another flower of the same species, a sticky stigma-tipped style will brush the same spot, picking up pollen.’ (Te Ara)

A note on colour:

I wonder if the Māori word for yellow, kōwhai, was named after these flowers, or the other way round. Up close, I noticed that some of the fallen flowers were almost chartreuse. Others were pure butter. (Remember Emily’s vivid description of travelling to Australia on the Victory steamer: ‘the vessel seemed to be an immense churn & I a lump of butter continually thumped about in it while the waves splashed like gallons of buttermilk.’)

In The University of Adelaide’s copy of New Zealand Flowers, the colouring of the kōwhai flowers has somehow faded into a charcoal grey, all vibrancy lost, only hinted at from the remaining yellow.

Emily Cumming Harris. ‘Sophora tetraptera (Kowhai).’ New Zealand Flowers. University of Adelaide 582.130993 H313n.

Emily knew the selling power of her kōwhai images. As early as 1879 she made a watercolour study of Sophora and Native Fuchsia that was probably part of her 28-piece submission for the Sydney International Exhibition of that year.

Research photo taken in 2016. Emily Cumming Harris. Untitled (Fuchsia and Sophora). 1879. Watercolour, 305 x 254mm. Puke Ariki. A65.641.

As late as 1919 her decorative screens featured kōwhai (and probably tūī). The Nelson Evening Mail reviewer of a Suter Art society show observed: ‘Amongst other local sketch exhibitions Miss Harris has a screen devoted to New Zealand flower sketches, yellow kowhai and native birds being a full representation.’ (3 Sept 1919)

Lead writer: Betty Davis
Research support: Makyla Curtis, Michele Leggott

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