Kahakaha – Perching Lily – Collospermum hastatum
These wonderful bunches of this New Zealand epiphyte were growing on an 800-year-old rimu tree in Otari-Wilton's bush, Wellington.
Kahakaha is an endemic New Zealand member of the Asteliaceae family. It occurs, mainly as an epiphyte on trees, in lowland areas of the North Island and northern South Island. It is known as a “nest epiphyte” because of the build-up of spongy root and soil matter around its base. Plants can grow into large and very heavy masses which are frequently perched on branches high up in tall trees. Those masses often fall to the ground and continue to grow there. It is because of the potential danger posed to humans by such a falling mass that Collospermum hastatum was known to men working in New Zealand forests in years past as the “Widow Maker”.
The kahakaha is dioecious, having male and female flowers on separate plants. The flowers appear in panicles from January to March. The numerous small fruits, which ultimately turn red, ripen from March to August. They contain many black seeds which are surrounded by a thick, fleshy aril.
The common name of perching lily is shared by Kowharawhara (Astelia Solandri) and the two are superficially similiar in that both look like NZ flax (harakeke) with bunched fans of semi-drooping sword-like leaves. The Kahakaha, however, is much broader in leaf than Kowharawhara and usually a bigger mass on its location in the crooks and bends of large native NZ trees. The leaves are ridged to channel the water into the leafy reservoir.
The leaf bases are black and the flowers green on spreading fingers with a faint scent.
Kahakaha’s great bunches of moist leaf litter often provide a platform for other epiphytes.