Kōwhai are small, woody legume trees in the genus Sophora native to New Zealand. There are eight species, Sophora microphylla andS. tetraptera being the most recognised as large trees. Their natural habitat is beside streams and on the edges of forest, in lowland or mountain open areas. Kōwhai trees grow throughout the country and are a common feature in New Zealand gardens. Outside of New Zealand, kōwhai tend to be restricted to mild temperate maritime climates.
The word kōwhai is also used in the Māori language as a colour term, because of the yellow colour of the flowers.
Despite having no official status as such, the blooms of the kōwhai are widely regarded as being New Zealand’s national flower.
THE NEW ZEALAND RAILWAYS MAGAZINE, VOLUME 3, ISSUE 7 (NOVEMBER 1, 1928)
THE GOLDEN KOWHAI — A FOLK TALE OF THE MAORI
(By JAMES COWAN.)
Long ago, in the back country of the Rotorua Lakes region, I heard a Maori explanation of the Kowhai’s singular habit of flowering on bare and leafless branches.
The Miraculous Flowering.
On the shore of one of these lakes, said the arboreal fairy tale, there sat one day in the misty long ago a young Maori man and girl. The man pressed his love on the beautiful Kotiro; he sought her for his wife, but the maid laughed—Maori maids are as “kittle cattle” as their Pakeha sisters—and said she’d see; she would wait; she would not accept his love until her suitor—who was an Ariki of high rank and a tohunga too—performed some great and unexampled deed before she would become his wife. She would wed none but a famous man, a man whose exploits no one could outdo.
The lover accepted the challenge. “You shall see what I can do,” he said, He turned to the tree under which they were sitting. It was a Kowhai. The time was about our Pakeha month of August. The tree was quite bare of both flower and leaf.
To Please a Maiden’s Eyes.
“I shall,” said the young tohunga, “cause this tree to spring into flower before your eyes.” With those words he put forth all his occult powers, the command of mind over matter, which had been taught him by the wise men in the sacred house of instruction. He recited in quick tense tones his magic prayers. And, all in a moment, a miracle! All at once the tree burst forth into a blaze of blossom. All its naked boughs were covered in a breath with golden hanging flowers.
The amazed girl saw, and was conquered. No man surely could rival that wonder-feat of her priestly lover.
And ever since that day, says the Maori, the Kowhai has flowered on leafless branches, a sign and a reminder of the ancient miracle.
(The Scarlet Cianthus, which is called by the Maoris the Kowhai-ngutu-kaka, or “Parrot’s beak,” because of the shape of its very rich flowers, does not carry any special association with native folk-talk. It is the yellow Kowhai that is heard in tradition and song. “Te ura o te Kowhai” (the glow of the Kowhai) is a common expression, and the Maori was as quick as any Pakeha artist or poet to appreciate the beauty of the drooping clusters of golden blossom reflected on the glossy waters of a lake or harbour, or in a gliding river. There is a mystical “Kowhai-turanga ora,” or “Tree of Life,” in the classic legendry of the Waikato people; it is used symbolically in song and speech to-day in allusion to powers and authorities—the British Crown was thus referred to in an address I remember—to which the Maoris look for help and life.)