Tree 48: Griselinia
Griselinia littoralis is a hardy evergreen tree with a rough, dark trunk reaching 10-20 metres if left to grow naturally. In the UK it is usually seen trimmed into a hedging shrub in variegated form. It produces tiny green and yellow flowers in May which are a good source of pollen for bees and other pollinators. If both sexes are grown together in the autumn the female trees have small purple-black fruit enjoyed by birds.
The broad, leathery, evergreen leaves tolerate salt, frost and persistent wind, hinting at its coastal origins. Griselinia littoralis is very common in the South Island of New Zealand, often starting life as an epiphyte (airplant), growing on old fallen logs. (Epiphytes cling onto other plants but are not parasitic.)
Griselinia is important in Māori traditions, the inner bark being used for traditional Rongoā, Māori medicine. Treasured personal possessions were kept in containers carved from Griselinia littoralis wood. The autumn berries are a favourite of the Tui songbird which is considered sacred in Māori folklore. There are many Māori names including Kapuka (pronounced Ka Pooka), or Papauma pronounced (Papa Ooma).
These plants must have fascinated Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, the naturalists on Captain Cook’s New Zealand Expedition on HMS Endeavour in 1769. Griselinia littoralis was first brought to the UK in 1850 and cultivated here in 1872. It was named after the Venetian botanist, Franc Griselini, while littoralis is derived from the Latin meaning ‘of the sea shore’.
Griselinia has a special plant geographical interest as it belongs to a small group of genera (biological classification) which exhibit a wide disjunction in their distribution between South America and New Zealand. There are five species of Griselinia in Chile and some of them are shrub epiphytes.