February in the hills with Michele Dickson and Chris Horne
Austroderia toetoe, toetoe, plumed tussock, feathery grass
Origin of the names
‘Austroderia’ means a southern form of Cortaderia. The name is based on the Spanish verb ‘cortar’, to cut, referring to the leaf margins; toetoe is the te reo Māori name for all of the five Austroderia species of these large grasses, and is the specific name for this species. Previously in the genus Cortaderia, the five native NZ species have now been placed in the genus Austroderia. All are endemic and two are found in the Wellington region - A. toetoe and A. fulvida. The two species of introduced and invasive pampas grasses in NZ remain in the genus Cortaderia.
A. toetoe, the largest of our native grasses, grows only in southern Te Ika a Māui/North Island, from Wellington north to Rotorua and Tauranga. It is also naturalised from plantings in some other North Island locations.
A. toetoe inhabits swamps, stream sides and wet places, from sea level to 800 m, often growing with flax/haraheke.
A. toetoe is a stout tussock, up to 4 m tall when in flower, with sharp-edged leaves (unusual in grasses generally). It bears a shining white kākaho/culm/ flowering stem with a large plumose panicle/ branched flower head. The leaf sheath covering the leaf below the joint with the leaf blade, is ivorycoloured and waxy. At the joint is a ligule, a thin membranous projection partially surrounding the top of the leaf sheath, up to 4 mm high, and at the base of this is a dark-brown collar. The leaf blade is about 2 m long x 3 cm wide, straw to light greencoloured. The rough, sharp margin is caused by rows of minute prickle-teeth.
The flower head/inflorescence is up to 1 m long, stiff, erect and densely plumose. The plumes are a creamy, yellowish colour. The spikelets, up to 25 mm long, contain two or three florets and their chaffy bracts. Most florets are bisexual, but some are female only. Both may produce seeds. The whole culm/flowering stem of this species is up to 4 m. Flowering is from late January to February.
Māori used toetoe leaves to make kete/baskets, kaiaia/kites, moenga/mats, wall linings, roof thatching and cylindrical tukohu/containers to cook food in hot springs. The flower stems, called kākaho, were used for house linings and for making arrows or spears for fishing and hunting. The flower stalks were also used as frames for kites, tukutuku/house panelling and also eaten as a food. The white plumes of the toetoe seed heads were compacted into a covering used to stop bleeding. Other rongoā/medicinal uses of the plant included treatment of toothache, diarrhoea, bladder, kidney complaints, intestinal parasites and burns. A paste made by mixing the ashes of burnt toetoe with water was used as a poultice on burns. You can use the plumes as an indoor decoration - they stay fresh for months.
Where to find Austroderia toetoe
Look for it in the Zealandia catchment, Makara Peak, Rangitatau Reserve on Miramar Peninsula, Huntleigh Park in Crofton Downs, western Wellington and in the Tararua, Remutaka and Aorangi ranges.