What can kōwhai tell us about the location of New Zealand’s forests during the ice ages?

Science researcher Lara Shepherd explores kōwhai trees, one of New Zealand’s most widely recognised native plants and our unofficial national flower.

Did you realise that we actually have eight species of kōwhai in New Zealand? Our DNA research investigating the relationships of these kōwhai species and where kōwhai trees were located during the ice ages has just been published.

Woman collects leaves from a flower-laded large-leaved kōwhai

A flower-laded large-leaved kōwhai (Sophora tetraptera) from the Wairarapa. Photograph by Leon Perrie

How are New Zealand kōwhai species related to each other?

Our genetic results show that kōwhai species share DNA with each other. This sharing of DNA likely occurs through hybridisation between the species and makes it difficult to construct a family tree of relationships for kōwhai. Prostrate kōwhai is the only species we were able to distinguish with the DNA markers we used.

Woman collects genetic samples from prostrate kōwhai

Collecting genetic samples from prostrate kōwhai (Sophora prostrata) on the Port Hills. This species is restricted to the eastern South Island and has zig-zag branches with small leaves and flowers. Photograph by Leon Perrie

Where were kōwhai trees found during the most recent cold spell of the ice ages?

Using our DNA results we were able to tell that Sophora survived the Last Glacial Maximum of the ice-age (~30,000 years ago) throughout much of the country, rather than being restricted to only a few refugia in the warmer places. This result is consistent with our past studies of the other lowland plants fierce lancewood and Hooker’s spleenwort.

The widespread survival of New Zealand lowland plants contrasts with Europe and North America, where the climate during the Last Glacial Maximum was so severe that many species had to retreat hundreds of kilometres to warmer refugial areas.

A close-up of Cook Strait kōwhai

Cook Strait kōwhai (Sophora molloyii) . This species is naturally uncommon in the wild where it is restricted to coastal areas on both sides of Cook Strait. It is a popular garden plant and is often sold as Sophora cv. Dragon’s gold. Photograph by Leon Perrie

2 Responses

  1. Robin Watt

    What a good piece of research. Well done. Now: I cannot access the publication using the link above so (a) did the research reveal (or could it be used to) any indication that any kowhai was spread by Maori in prehistoric times? (b) did the research consider that any kowhai, or some subspecies of it, could have been brought to NZ by prehistoric Polynesian settlers? (c) is there any indication from the research that founder populations together with isolation (perhaps in conjunction with ‘a’ and ‘b’ above) accounted for differences in their respective DNA profiles? Thanks, Robin.

    • Lara Shepherd

      Thank you Robin. I’m going to write another blog shortly about coastal kōwhai – the populations of this species around Wellington and on the Chatham Islands have been suggested to result from Māori plantings.

      We have done another study looking at the relationships of kōwhai around the Southern Hemisphere and we found that kōwhai species on Pacific Islands differ genetically from the species in New Zealand so we can rule out an human introduction to New Zealand from Polynesia. We’ve just submitted this research for publication and I will write a blog on the results when it is published.

      In answer to your last question I think isolation has had a big part in the genetic patterns we see in New Zealand kōwhai. Many parts of New Zealand have unique DNA sequences and these have likely evolved in isolation. Interestingly these regional DNA types are often shared between different species. For example, there is a DNA type only found in the Wairarapa but it occurs on both Sophora tetraptera and Sophora microphylla.
      I hope this answers your questions!

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