New Zealand is full of plants that have evolved in odd ways thanks to our long history of having a predominantly avian nature rather than one ruled by mammals. Let me introduce you to a member of the carrot family commonly known as Spaniard or speargrass, botanical name Aciphylla. Almost all of the 40 species are found only in the South Island and then generally in tussock and upland country.
The leaves are stiff with razor-sharp points and, if that weren’t enough, the flowers have spikes all over them too. New Zealand in Flower by Alison Evans (Bookmakers, 1987) says the reason for the armour is unclear, although some experts suggest it might have evolved as protection from browsing moa, (although sheep, deer and rabbits graze them).
The authors of Gardening with New Zealand Shrubs, Plants & Trees (Collins, 1988) suggest the spikes help mitigate the exposed conditions in which the plants grow. This book also notes the uses both Moriori and Maori made of the plant, including collecting a scented gum from the base of the leaves.
Apparently the tender shoots and tap root were both eaten, with one early written record likening the taste of the tap root to “somewhat like a carrot”. The roots of plants that hadn’t flowered were considered the best when food was short. Read more on Maori use of the plant here.
Oddly enough, these well-armoured plants can be found in gardens, including at Larnach Castle high on the Otago Peninsula, which has Aciphylla glaucesens.
As well as the large plants (flowers up to 2m), there are also small varieties, some only 40cm high. Aciphylla dissecta is one such plant, found in the Tararua Range in the North Island.
What did the Spanish do to deserve the plant’s common name? The only reference I can find suggests it is “jocular”, although the Reverend William Colenso, writing in a newspaper in 1894, calls the name “objectionable” and preferring the Maori name, taramea (rough, spiny thing), or its botanical name. His tale of trying to find a way through speargrass and the injuries it wrought is worth reading, although his reference to “wild Irishman” is misleading as that is another spiny native plant (matagouri or Discaria toumatou).
In a paper on ‘popular plant names’ of New Zealand presented at a scientific congress in 1921, Johannes Andersen said that Spaniard was a “fantastical” name and that he hadn’t been able to trace a source for it.