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.
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.
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.