June in the forest with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe
Carex uncinata, Matau a Māui, Hooked sedge, hook grass, bastard grass
Although we trampers often call this native plant ‘hook grass’, or ‘bastard grass’, it is not a grass, but a member of the sedge family. Check the stems of sedges – they are triangular in cross-section. Hence the saying ‘sedges have edges’. The stems of grasses are round in cross-section.
There are 32 members of the Uncinia genus in New Zealand, all referred to as ‘hooked sedges’. Uncinia uncinata grows in forests in the North, South, Stewart, Chatham, and Sub-Antarctic islands, and in Hawaii. It is common in coastal to montane forests and scrub, and occasionally in bogs and swamp margins, up to 900 m above sea level.
Alongside tracks in the Tararua and Aorangi ranges, and in our regional parks, look for its dense tufts of grass-like, rough-edged, dark green, occasionally reddish green, leaves, 2 - 5 mm wide, and 10 - 45 cm or more long. In summer, the flower stalks, 10 – 90 cm long, rise from the tight clumps of leaves.
Most trampers will have noticed and probably cursed this plant! The tiny, hooked and barbed end of each seed snags on socks, hair, bird feathers, e.g., kiwi, weka, toutouwai / robin, and the coats of animals. Later, in a different place, when you, a bird, or an animal, pull off the seeds, or they simply fall off, the plant has succeeded in distributing its seed - a reason why hooked sedge is often found along the edges of tramping tracks. Check the paths in your garden – you may find a hooked sedge growing there, its seed having fallen off your socks or legs. If so, you have unwittingly aided the spread of a native plant onto your property. Chris has several examples of these ‘hitch-hikers’ flourishing on his property.
One Māori name for this plant is matau a Māui (Māui’s hook), referring to the legendary ancestor, Māui, learning from his mother about the effectiveness of a barbed hook for spearing birds. Māui is also credited with inventing the barbed fish-hook, which he used to catch and haul up Te Ika a Māui, ‘the fish of Māui’, the North Island.