Nīkau - Rhopalostylis sapida

Nīkau - Rhopalostylis sapida

New Zealand’s only native palm, the nīkau, Rhopalostylis sapida, is the world’s most southerly-growing and cold-tolerant species of palm tree. The word “nīkau” is thought to mean “only leaves” or “without bearing nuts”. It is slow growing and lives to well over 200 years. Nīkau occur mainly in lowland coastal forests but, surprisingly, thrive far inland as well.

Growing up to 10 metres or more in height, nīkau are an important component in the forest restoration on Motutapu. Raised from eco-sourced seed, some from maturing island plantings, they are planted amongst the maturing pioneer trees. MRT started planting nīkau on Motutapu in 2005 and have planted hundreds of nīkau saplings in the Home Bay Forest since then. It is exciting that fruit from the older nīkau is being spread by kereru and other birds, resulting in tiny nīkau seedlings starting to appear on the forest floor.

 Nīkau feed a variety of wildlife all year round. Their musk-scented flowers, each like a tiny lily, attract insects, geckos and nectar feeding birds like tauhou (silver eye) and korimako (bellbirds) as pollinators. Their ripening berries turn red in slow succession and hang like strings of bright beads from the trunk to feed other birds such as kererū and kākā. Nīkau seeds are high in calcium which is important for the production of kereru eggs. Kiwi use the seeds as gizzard stones and kererū often nest in the treetops. Nīkau also host a number of invertebrates such as weevils.  

The first Māori in Āotearoa would have been disappointed to find that nīkau palms didn’t produce anything akin to the coconut, but it still became an invaluable resource. Nīkau yield edible green berries and a luxury food from the trunk, fronds for thatching, weaving and food preparation, and tough leaf bases for making into scoops, vessels and containers.  

Exotic palms have become a pest in Āotearoa, so nurturing nīkau helps to boost our native flora, and support the wildlife so reliant on this handsome plant.

Nīkau Seeds (B Winstone)               Nīkau Palm                         Kererū (B Winstone)
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