South American pampas grasses (Cortaderia) are often mistaken for native toetoe and vice-versa. But what is ‘toetoe’? According to Lawrie Metcalfe in his 2008 book, The Cultivation of New Zealand Native Grasses, there are five distinct species called ‘toetoe’ (in fact, in this book they are all listed as Cortaderia but were reclassified as Austroderia in 2011).
The North Island species are Austroderia fulvida (also in the Golden Bay area of the South Island), Austroderia splendens (Northland only), Austroderia toetoe (from about Tauranga to Wellington). In the South Island there is Austroderia richardii (also Stewart Island), and on the Chatham Islands Austroderia turbaria.
The South Island toetoe (Austroderia richardii) is smaller than the most commonly seen North Island plants and doesn’t develop the large base of their cousins (and pampas). The plant will also grow almost anywhere in all soil types and is particularly effective in massed plantings. I saw a fenceline or three planted with this toetoe in the Domes area of Southland and they looked fantastic.
Maori used the plants in various ways, including for baskets and mats (leaves), to line the walls of their homes (stems), to make kite frames (stems) and to staunch bleeding (seed heads).
Toetoe is also known as ‘cutty grass’ as the serrated leaf edge can easily cut the skin so careful handling is required.
How do you tell the difference between the exotic weed pampas and native toetoe?
- Pampas leaves snap readily when given a sharp tug. Toetoe leaves do not.
- Native toetoe, which have arching or drooping golden-creamy flowers and are much less promiscuous in spreading seed, flower in spring and summer (September-January). Pampas flowers in late summer and autumn (January-June) on tall, stiffly erect flower stems, looking like a fluffy duster on a wooden rod. Flowers are white-pinkish or tinged with purple.
- The surface of a toetoe leaf is dark, shiny green and smooth, it has a distinctive secondary vein between the midrib and margin of the leaf and when the leaves die they hang down flat. Pampas has leaves that are dull and rough to touch and only have a single midrib. One of the easiest ways to identify this weed from our native plant is when pampas leaves die they curl up like wood shavings at the base of the plant.
Pampas seed carries great distances in strong wind, and was one of the weeds found invading the Poor Knights islands, 3km off the New Zealand coast!