Strangely, one of the first things that came to my mind when seeing this photograph was a resemblance between the seed (and its surrounding tissues) and an eyeball at the end of some sort of appendage…I can’t un-see it. This photo actually depicts an opened fruit of Alectryon excelsus, where the now partially-exposed seed is accompanied by a pulpy aril.
Known as tītoki, New Zealand ash, or New Zealand oak, Alectryon excelsus is a tree endemic to the lowland forests of New Zealand, growing to 10-20m (~32-65 ft.). It is used in the landscape for both its ornamental value and importance to wildlife. Pollinators include bees and butterflies, while birds help to disperse the lustrous black seeds. These seeds are initially enclosed within woody, pubescent capsules. In the spring, these split open to reveal the seed and aril.
Adult leaves of tītoki are imparipinnate, with about 3- to 7-alternately arranged dark green leaflets. The small flowers are apetalous (lacking petals) and reddish in colour.
The etymology of Alectryon excelsus stems from the red aril’s resemblance to a rooster’s cockscomb (Alectryon meaning rooster in Greek) and the specific epithet, excelsus, meaning “tall”. Further excellent pictures (including pics of entire trees) and descriptions on this ornamental tree can be found via the New Zealand Plant Conservation Network or Taranaki Educational Resource.
Tony Foster, today’s photographer, also shared an image in the Botany Photo of the Day Flickr Pool from his garden showing an assortment of native New Zealand vegetation with Alectryon excelsus somewhere in the mix. He challenges his viewers to try to identify as many species as they can. Have a look, and try to find tītoki!
In Māori traditions, oil from the seeds of tītoki is extracted by bruising and steaming. This oil is then used to treat ailments including skin problems, earaches, swelling, and wounds. Tony Foster also maintains the blogspace Bushmansfriend, where he details additional uses of tītoki by the Māori. For example, perfumes made from the oil were at one time reserved mostly for people of higher social class. He also includes two Māori sayings using tītoki. One of these is, “Hei te tau titoki”, which means “Put off until the titoki berries appear”. In Tony’s words: “The berries, from which grooming oil was obtained, did not appear in the same amounts every year. The saying refers to an indefinite postponement”.