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Spiny Spaniards in New Zealand

Sandra Simpson

Sandra Simpson

July 23, 2013

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).

Aciphylla3The 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.

Aciphylla flowers - and spines!

Aciphylla flowers – and spines!

Find out more here about Aciphylla colensoi,  Aciphylla squarrosa and the aptly named Aciphylla horrida.

aciphylla4What 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.

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Catherine Stewart
8 years ago

OUCH!! What an incredibly defensive plant. Interesting how much the inflorescence looks like the Australian lomandra but they are from completely different families. I guess spines are the best defence against being eaten, whether by moas or roos. I also wonder which of the Maori sexes drew the short straw and had to get close enough to dig up the taproot……let me guess…..

Stephen Ryan
8 years ago

Dear Sandra,
Another good reason to avoid wearing shorts when bush walking in New Zealand. Will I see you in November at the Marlborough garden event?
Regards Stephen

8 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Ryan

Hi Stephen,
Nice to hear from you. At this stage, no I don’t think I will be in Marlborough. I see that one of your fellow speakers is Rosemary Alexander – met her in Auckland a few years ago. Lovely woman.

You won’t meet Aciphylla in bush, it is an open (tussock) country plant, so please feel free to break out the shorts anytime!

All the best,

Julie Thomson
8 years ago

Looks mean, vicious and nasty, Sandra. The trouble and pain getting to the aciphylla tap root would hardly be worth the food, would it? NZ can keep that one!

8 years ago
Reply to  Julie Thomson

Hi Julie,
I edged up carefully to one I was photographing and very gingerly stretched out a finger to the leaf point. Yow! I barely brushed it and was vowing never to do that again. I understand, though can’t confirm, that Maori used the foliage of plants with stiff leaves as something like lances.


Philip Simpson
Philip Simpson
6 years ago

Yucca in California is known as ‘spanish bayonet’, referring to the sharp leaves and also to the narrow spike that forms the flowering stem. Yuccas were introduced to Europe with these names and some English settlers to New Zealand would have known the name and applied it to similar looking plants here.

stuart read
5 years ago

Can I suggest that ‘Spaniard’ as a common name has way more to do with who the English and their botanising allies saw as the enemy at the time periods NZ was being explored and botanised (1770+ with Cook, Forster, Solander etc) and settled (1810s+ counting whalers and missionaries)? Think Napoleonic wars, invasion of Spain. Same reason Mexican yuccas were given common names like ‘Spanish bayonet’ even if time frames there were earlier. Great article thanks and lovely to see aciphyllas get a guernsey. They’d certainly spice up a cooler climate aussue garden had anyone the seed or patience!