The karaka tree

Karaka berries in abundance on the pavement

Given the uneven nature of the pavements in my local town, my eyes were looking down when I came across this remarkable sight. The fruiting of the karaka. Even by karaka standards, this is a bountiful crop and very decorative on a sunny day, although I imagine some locals are less pleased about the amount strewn over the footpath.

It is a common coastal tree both in the wild and as a distinctive, evergreen, garden specimen. The ever-handy internet tells me that botanists think that its original habitat was the northern half of the North Island and the northerly offshore islands. The fact that it is now found all round the country and even on the Chatham Islands is because it was a valuable food source for Maori who deliberately planted it and cultivated it.

That is quite a crop of berries on the karaka tree

I think most New Zealanders know that the karaka berries are highly poisonous unless prepared correctly. It is not the fruit pulp that is the problem, it is the toxic kernel. Should you want to know how the fruit is prepared for human consumption in the indigenous diet, I can refer you to this article on The Spin Off. In the interests of research, I sampled the flesh of a ripe fruit and I can tell you it is indeed sweet and fruity although it is only a thin layer over the rather large kernel. It reminded me of the taste of loquats.

The tree in the centre is a self-sown karaka destined for the chop

Karaka pop up all around our property as self-sown seedlings along with tree ferns, nikau palms and kawakawa. This one got away on us and is destined for the chainsaw because it blocks a vista we want to keep open. Like most seedlings, we will let them grow if they are in the wilder margins or shelter belts but restrict them in cultivated garden areas. If we didn’t, we would have a forest of karaka because I swear, every fruit that falls beneath this tree germinates and I have to weed them out when small.

I kept seeing references on line to it being toxic to dogs who, allegedly, eat the whole fruit including the kernels. I asked Mark if he had ever heard of a dog being poisoned by karaka berries and he scoffed, pointing out that they are of no interest to dogs at all and he certainly had never heard of it happening. There are many things we grow in the garden that are toxic to dogs, including yew trees, but the chances of you inadvertently killing the family pet by growing a karaka tree seem very remote although it must have happened in the occasional instance to be recorded. It makes a good specimen tree with its lush foliage and quick growth without becoming a forest giant (it stops at about 15 metres naturally so you can keep it smaller in a garden situation) and the fruit will bring the kereru into your garden.

I doubt that there are many people in New Zealand, other than botanists, who know the botanical name for this tree – Corynocarpus laevigatus. There is a name I had to look up and I know that I will never remember it. We all know it by its Maori name- karaka. There may be more people who can pronounce it correctly, but not too many more. It is usually pronounced karaka to sound like cracker. I looked that up too and while there are regional variations, phonetically it can be transcribed as cah-raa-cah or kuh-raa-kuh (but with a short u sound), bearing in mind that the Maori language places equal stress on all syllables. Mark and I are practising to at least try and get it closer to the correct pronunciation.

7 thoughts on “The karaka tree

  1. robynkiltygardensnz

    I do identify with your having to pluck our seedlings all over the place – With me it’s Cordyline and Sasanqua Camellia seedlings. But you probably get those too I would think!

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Oh yes, we get those too. Especially the species camellias which tend to set seed freely. And there are only so many cordylines we want.

  2. Paddy Tobin

    Despite being almost a weed for you, it is an attractive tree. If the fruit had more pulp it would be prized, I imagine.

  3. Pauline Bassett

    While I have been admiring the heavy crops of berries here on the Coromandel peninsula, I am wary of encouraging its cultivation. Karaka when in flower provides nectar that is highly toxic to bees, so much so it can decimate some of our bee colonies in a good flowering year. The bees just dwindle away and sometimes the colony does not recover. Karaka poisoning is a familiar sight here around Labour weekend, very disheartening for the bees and the beekeeper.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I looked it up. It seems problems arise when there are too many hives and too little in the way of alternative food sources, forcing the bees onto the karaka. It appears that the research has been done on honey bees and now I want to know if our native bees are also susceptible or whether they have evolved to know the dangers.

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