Sophora tetraptera J. S. Miller

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Article from Bean's Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles

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'Sophora tetraptera' from the website Trees and Shrubs Online ( Accessed 2024-02-24.


Common Names

  • Kowhai


  • Edwardsia grandiflora Salisb.
  • S. tetraptera var. grandiflora (Salisb.) Hook. f.


(pl. calyces) Outer whorl of the perianth. Composed of several sepals.
Lying flat against an object.
Egg-shaped; broadest towards the stem.
Odd-pinnate; (of a compound leaf) with a central rachis and an uneven number of leaflets due to the presence of a terminal leaflet. (Cf. paripinnate.)
Unbranched inflorescence with flowers produced laterally usually with a pedicel. racemose In form of raceme.
standard petal
(in the flowers of some legumes) Large upper petal; also known as ‘vexillum’.


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Article from Bean's Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles

Recommended citation
'Sophora tetraptera' from the website Trees and Shrubs Online ( Accessed 2024-02-24.

A shrub or small tree, varying from 15 to 40 ft high in the wild, the trunk 6 in. to 2 ft in diameter, usually shedding its leaves before the flowers expand in spring; young branchlets clad with a tawny down. Unlike S. microphylla it does not go through a juvenile phase. Leaves pinnate, 112 to 6 in. long, with ten to twenty pairs of leaflets, which are 12 to 138 in. long, 316 to 516 in. wide, ovate or elliptic oblong, appressed silky-hairy on both sides. Flowers somewhat tubular, golden yellow, pendulous, clustered four to ten together in each raceme, opening in May. Calyx silky, obliquely bell-shaped, 12 in. or more across, shallow-toothed. Standard forward pointing, about two-thirds as long as the keel; wings slightly longer than the standard. Pods 2 to 8 in. long, four-winged, with constrictions between the seeds. Bot. Mag., t. 167.

Native of the North Island of New Zealand, in open places, often by stream-sides, or at the margins of forest; introduced in 1772 by Sir Joseph Banks, who accompanied Capt. Cook on his first exploratory voyage and brought back plants, two of which flowered and fruited in 1779. One of the most beautiful of New Zealand natives, the kowhai is fortunately hardy enough to thrive and flower against a sunny wall over much of the country and is unlikely to be killed outright by frost once it has built up a woody framework. But in cool and rainy localities it may not ripen its wood sufficiently to withstand severe winters. South of London it can be grown in the open in a sheltered spot but remains shrubby. In the milder parts it has attained tree dimensions, as at Mount Stewart in Northern Ireland, 23 × 214 ft (1976) and Mount Usher, Co. Wicklow, Eire, 26 × 214 ft. Even at Kew, in a south-facing bay on the Temperate House Terrace it attained a height of 18 ft.

S. tetraptera is well worth growing for its large, showy flowers and its foliage. The remarkable necklace-like pod, with four thin ridges traversing it lengthwise, is quite often seen in this country. S. tetraptera received an Award of Merit in 1943 when shown by the University Botanic Garden, Cambridge.

S. microphylla Ait. Edwardsia microphylla (Ait.) Salisb.; S. tetraptera var. microphylla (Ait.) Hook. f. – A tree to about 30 ft high, usually going through a more or less prolonged juvenile state during which it forms a dense bush with slender intertwining branches. Leaflets smaller than in S. tetraptera, up to 38 in. long at the most, and usually more numerous (up to forty pairs). Flowers as in that species but the standard petal relatively longer, about equalling the wings or a little longer. Bot. Mag., t. 3735. This species is more widely spread in New Zealand than S. tetraptera, occurring on both the main islands and on Chatham Island. It was introduced at the same time. Both were planted in the Chelsea Physic Garden in 1774 and the plant of S. microphylla that still grows there on a wall of the main building is probably a descendant of the original Banks plant. It is hardy there and produces self-sown seedlings. This species received an Award of Merit in 1951.

From the Supplement (Vol. V)

specimens: Morrab Gardens, Penzance, Cornwall, 28 × 2 ft and other stems (1979); Mount Stewart, Co. Down, 26 × 214 ft (1976); Ballywalter, Co. Down, on wall, 41 × 812 ft at 1 ft (1982); Mount Usher, Co. Wicklow, Eire, 26 × 214 ft at 4 ft (1975).

† cv. ‘Gnome. – In New Zealand gardens the species normally attains a height of about 20 ft. This cultivar is slow-growing to about 8 ft high, stiffly and erectly branched, with flowers about 214 in. long. It may start to flower when only some 1 ft high (Metcalf, Cult. N. Z. Tr. and Shr., p. 258).

var. longicarinata (Simpson) Allan

S. longicarinata Simpson
S. treadwellii Hort. ex Allan

A small tree; leaflets only about {1/6} in. long, in up to forty pairs. Flowers lemon-yellow, about 2 in. long. This was described in 1942 from plants found at Takaka in the northwestern part of South Island, growing on limestone rocks. It is perhaps not in cultivation in Britain but deserves to be introduced, being very ornamental (L. J. Metcalf, Cult. N.Z. Tr. and Shr. (1972), p. 256).A Chilean sophora of the Edwardsia group is sometimes identified as S. tetraptera. It is not that species but near to, and perhaps not specifically distinct from, S. microphylla, from which it differs in its fewer leaflets (fifteen to seventeen pairs), in the slightly smaller flowers with the standard shorter than the wings, and in not going through a juvenile phase. It is a tree to about 25 ft high, occupying much the same habitats as its New Zealand relative, and is more widely distributed than the Chilean endemic S. macrocarpa, ranging from Maule province in central Chile through the forest region as far as Chiloe Island and the mainland opposite (Muñoz, Flora Silvestre de Chile (1966), pp. 191–2 and t. 38).Early in the last century a sophora of unknown provenance grew in the Edinburgh Botanic Garden, where it was hardier than S. tetraptera or S. microphylla. It was named Edwardsia macnabiana by Graham in 1838 and portrayed in the Botanical Magazine two years later. Graham suspected that it might be no more than a seedling variation of S. tetraptera, but it seems to have agreed very well with the Chilean form or ally of S. microphylla. It is in cultivation from seeds collected by Comber in the Chilean Andes in 1927.S. prostrata Buchan. S. tetraptera var. prostrata (Buchan.) Kirk – A low intricately branched shrub, flat-topped and very dense in exposed places, sometimes prostrate. Leaves about 1 in. long, with up to eight pairs of leaflets, each leaflet about {1/6} in. long, oblong. Flowers to about three in a raceme, orange or brownish yellow. Pods less than 2 in. long, with up to five seeds. Native of South Island, New Zealand, in grassland and open rocky places, east of the Divide. S. microphylla sometimes bears flowers even in the juvenile state, and this species seems to be a modification that is fertile and permanently juvenile in habit.