Posted on 13th September, 2021

This beautiful stout tree is one of my favourites… I love its dark glossy leaves, its striking clusters of green/ red berries and the fact that it is a small compact tree that only grows to a height of about 3 metres. It’s a perfect garden size… It is also a rare tree as it is naturally only found on Manawatawhi/The Three Kings Islands (about 55km northwest of Cape Reinga), more specific only on Ohau/ West Island and two other nearby rocky islets. On West Island it grows as an understorey shrub or small tree of a Pohutukawa forest, but on the rocky islets, especially Hinemoa Rock, it withstands the harsh coastal conditions and emerges in exposed places as a canopy tree.

Three Kings Islands
Manawatawhi/The Three Kings Islands

Since 1995 the islands are a wildlife sanctuary; compared to other isolated islands, Manawatawhi/The Three Kings Islands have extremely high levels of endemism, both Flora and Fauna wise which need to be protected. The “world’s rarest and thus most endangered tree” – Kaikomako/ Pennantia baylissiana as well as the rare climber Tecomanthe speciosa are also part of this vulnerable ecosystem. As gardeners we should do our best to support and grow these rare and endangered species, not only to preserve them but also because they are unique to New Zealand…

Back to Elingamita… it looks much like a small Karaka tree with its dark glossy leaves, but taking a closer look, you can see that its ascending branches initially look fleshy and succulent like. They soon become woody though and over time the bark turns grey and smooth. Between February and May (sometimes also between August and November), Elingamita flowers in the form of red/pink (female) or yellow (male) tiny flowers at the tops of the stems, usually on separate trees (male and female trees). It then takes a year or longer for the fruit to ripen. But only the female trees carry these beautiful, large clusters of berries each up to 20mm in diameter. They look very attractive in their green stage but once the whole cluster has turned dark red, they look incredibly beautiful. Their display lasts for a long time – it seems the tree always has berries on it. You would think that birds such as Kereru would indulge on the berries but it appears that they are not too much interested in these, maybe because they have plenty of other more delicious things to choose from. Apparently the red fleshy fruits are also edible to humans, the flesh tasting somewhat like an oily, salty apple… well this might explain why Kererus prefer other berries as food source and only go for Elingamita berries if desperate…

"it looks much like a small Karaka..."

Elingamita johnsonii was discovered in 1950 by Major M.E. Johnson. He found the tree below a cliff where back in November 1902, the steamer Elingamite which had left Sydney a few days prior, had struck some rocks while encountering thick fog. Within 20 minutes, the ship had sunken along with its cargo of one-and-a-half tonnes of silver coins and some 6000 gold half-sovereigns from an Australian bank. Of the 136 passengers and 58 crew on board, 45 people died sadly… The Captain of the Elingamite was later charged and found guilty of negligence but charges where revoked once realised that the islands were incorrectly chartered on the maps. Today, the wreck of the Elingamite can still be enjoyed by divers but most of its precious cargo has now been liberated. But who knows, there is always a chance that you may stumble over one or two gold coins when exploring the wreck…

Back to the tree… you as a gardener can play an important role to help save our threatened plants, such as the Elingamita johnsonii, by including some in your own garden. Remember all plants coming from a windy island to the North of New Zealand are frost tender. Elingamita needs a sheltered spot, prefers partial shade to begin with, and requires good drainage under foot. Due to its size, Elingamita is well suited to a smaller, especially coastal garden.

Elingamita Johnsonii Flowers