Curious plants: Aciphylla

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).

Photographed near Middlemarch in central Otago this summer. The thin pieces protruding from the flowers are spikes.

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.

As you might guess from the titles of the books, they 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.

More on Aciphylla colensoi, Aciphylla squarrosa and the aptly named Aciphylla horrida.