Kōwhai: 11 Facts About New Zealand's National Flower

Kōwhai tree
Kōwhai tree | © Bernard Spragg/Flickr
Thalita Alves

New Zealand has a myriad of interesting native plants and flowers to share, but the kōwhai is quite special. This stunning yellow blossom is widely regarded as the country’s national flower and is particularly known for being a clear marker of the beginning of spring. Here are 11 quick facts about this lovely beauty.

Kōwhai flowers were traditionally used by Māori to make yellow dye

And the kōwhai tree was a key medicinal source for them too: the bark in particular was used to treat injuries, and kōwhai ashes were also incorporated in ringworm treatments.

Kōwhai flower

As a cultural symbol, the kōwhai has inspired a number of creative endeavours

Cover of ‘A Kōwhai Fairy’ by V. Deroles

They are part of the Sophora genus, which comprises several species of tropical trees and shrubs

Sophora species are not just present in New Zealand: they also exist in parts of Australia, Asia, as well as North and South America.

Sophora chrysophylla leaves, Polipoli, Maui, Hawaii

Sophora microphylla is the most widespread of the kōwhai species

They are found in the North and South Island alike, and are known to grow naturally in open forests and riverbanks.

Sophora microphylla

There are nine types of kōwhai in total

Most of these are trees, except for two: the Sophora molloyi and Sophora prostrata which take the shape of wiry tangled shrubs with sparse foliage.

Kōwhai flowers and foliage of Sophora molloyi

Kōwhai are known to grow in a diverse range of habitats

This includes riparian forests, coastal cliff faces and inland scrubs. Kōwhai are quite tough and enduring, and this enables them to tolerate various soil types.

Artwork in Point Chevalier, Auckland, depicting native trees and kōwhai flowers by the Waitemata Harbour

The trees can reach a height of 25 metres

That’s 82 feet for those who prefer imperial measures. Kōwhai heights tend to vary from specie to specie: some of the smallest trees, like ones found in the Northland Region, will usually grow to be around 10 metres tall (32.8 feet).

Kōwhai tree in Hamilton, New Zealand

Māori are partly to thank for the kōwhai’s widespread dissemination

Māori used to plant kōwhai trees around old settlement sites and sacred places. It is believed that plantings in some places like Wellington were the direct result of Māori tribal invasion and disputes.

A flowering kōwhai tree in Wellington, New Zealand

If grown from a seed, kōwhai might take several years to blossom

Prepping the seeds before planting might help speed up the process, but the number of years a kōwhai might take to flower varies from specie to specie.

Kōwhai tree leaves

Many native birds have an affinity for kōwhai nectar

Tui, bellbirds, kākā and kererū in particular rely on kōwhai nectar as a seasonal food source.

A common sign of spring: a tui up on a kōwhai tree

That being said, its seeds are toxic to humans

All parts of the Sophora microphylla species are poisonous, but its yellow seeds are especially so. They contain a toxin called Cytisine which, if ingested, can lead to nausea, vomiting and an increased heart rate; in extreme cases, it might even lead to paralysis or heart failure.

landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Winter Sale Offers on Our Trips

Incredible Savings

Edit article