Introducing the first blog in our series dedicated to Auckland Zoo’s flora where, together with our horticulture experts, a hero plant will be chosen from the diverse collection displayed in our zoo grounds to discuss each month.

An important part of what makes our zoo so special, and something our overseas visitors never fail to comment on, are our beautiful and well-kept grounds. The lush green gardens we are lucky to have here are the work of our dedicated horticultural team who brave the elements each day to give our gardens the care and attention they need.

It is important to champion our flora as much as our fauna as both are equally important for an ecosystem to function as it should - and one cannot survive without the other! As an organisation that is proud to put the environment first in so many ways, from our Zoo Doo compost, phasing out single-use plastic bags in 2012 and our recent CarbonZero certification, we hope to highlight how unique and interesting nature can be.

Our hero plant this month is a shrub endemic to isolated coastal and lowland areas of New Zealand, its scientific name is Muehlenbeckia astonii but is also known to Māori as shrubby tororaro, tumingi, mingimingi (meaning ‘twisted’), shrub pohuehue and wiggy bush.

This dense reddish-brown shrub features interlaced zig-zagging stems that bear small lime-green heart shaped leaves in summer. These wide angled divaricating branches are a characteristic feature of over sixty species of New Zealand shrubs and low-growing trees. Flowers form in clusters that, during summer and autumn, become sweet white cup-shaped fruit with dark black three-angled seeds inside.  

One theory is that the shrubby tororaro, along with New Zealand’s many other divaricating shrubs, evolved this twisting network of angled branches and small leaves to deter large browsing animals in early Aotearoa, such as the flightless Moa. The tightly interwoven stems make accessing small leaves difficult and require a lot of energy for little reward. 

This densely packed and beautiful shrub would make an amazing hedging plant and also provide a home for our native reptiles – many of which are endangered and also need our help!

Auckland Zoo

Native shrubs like this are home to a wealth of insects and lizard life – our nectar loving birds and lizards act as pollinators by feeding on the fruit and dispersing the seeds. To Mäori, tororaro is a taonga species due to its cultural and spiritual significance as a medicinal plant and was historically used to make nets to catch eels. 

Unfortunately, like many of our native plants this species is currently classified as nationally endangered, with an estimated wild population of only 3,000. Sadly, due to competition from introduced grasses, introduced browsing mammals and the separation of ‘male’ and ‘female’ plants in its natural habitat this shrub has been unable to regenerate successfully.

The great news is that you can help to reverse this tide by planting native seedlings in your home garden, this densely packed and beautiful shrub would make an amazing hedging plant and also provide a home for our native reptiles – many of which are endangered and also need our help. Encouragingly, this plant grows well from both seeds and cuttings and is available at many local nurseries and specialist plant stores.

If you’d like to see the shrubby tororaro in person, we have many large specimens on display in The Coast area of our zoo in Te Wao Nui, just past our New Zealand Fur Seals.