Our native plants: Bushman’s mattress

Lygodium articulatum or mangemange is a creeping fern, the woody stems of which, according to John Dawson and Rob Lucas in their book Nature Guide to the New Zealand Forest, are technically fronds.

These twining growths head up for the light and often reach the forest canopy, while the true stems remain low.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

Leaves are shiny and green – the leaflets that fork many times are fertile, while the ones that fork 2 to 3 times are sterile. Leaves can be anywhere along the vines but there’s often a mass up out of sight.

Bushman’s mattress is found from North Cape to the Bay of Plenty in the North Island, but take care not to confuse the common name with the shrub Muehlenbeckia complexa, sometimes called mattress plant.

Lygodium articulatum vines – not hanging down but scrambling up. All photos taken at Puketoki Reserve, Whakamarama, near Tauranga. Well worth a walk through. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The NZ Plant Conservation Network entry for Lygodium articulatum explains its common name: “These interwoven tangles make an excellent mattress and many a tramper has used these when caught out in the northern forests for the night. The only problem is that they are also a favoured home of tree weta, as many-a-tramper-caught-out-in-the-northern-forest-for-the-night comes to appreciate!”

Early writers recorded Maori using the vines in a variety of ways – to bind thatch securely on roofs; lashing in storehouse construction; to construct fish traps and eelpots; naturally curved stems, hardened by fire, as fish hooks; and to tie the necks of sacks used for soaking fermenting corn (after maize was introduced to New Zealand Maori developed a method of preserving it by soaking cobs in running water for 6 weeks to 3 months – the resulting (stinky) kānga pirau was made into porridge).

Photo: Sandra Simpson

From an article at the Oratia Native Plant Nursery website: “Mangemange is the only New Zealand species in the genus, but about 30 or 40 related species occur throughout the tropics and some such as mangemange grow into the temperate zone. Many have been declared noxious weeds overseas, where they have been taken out of their natural environment and introduced into other parts of the world without their natural predators.”

Our native plants: Spinifex

Spinifex sericeus is that small ‘tumbleweed’ commonly seen on North Island beaches during summer. It is a native sand-dune grass commonly seen on the seaward face of dunes through most of the North Island and the upper part of the South Island. It produces strong, long runners that creep across the dunes both above ground and under.

Spinifex seed heads found last summer on the ocean beach at Ohiwa. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Dune Restoration Trust website says spinifex is also called silvery sand grass or kowhangatara. “Where stands of spinifex are vigorous, runners will trail over recent erosion scarps caused by storms and high seas … [and] encourage the build-up of wind-distributed sand along the scarp and eventually a return to a low-angle dune face…”

The plant thrives in strong winds, salt spray, full sun, shifting sands and drought. Spinifex sericeus is also found in Australia.

Spinifex seed heads waiting to roll. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Spinifex plants are either male or female, the latter’s flowers being those tumbleweed seed-heads that are released in late summer. When the wind blows, they roll along the beach until they lodge against an obstacle, trap sand in their spines to bury the seeds which then have a chance to germinate. The Terrain website notes that seeds can also be carried by the tides and still germinate when they come to rest.

The always-informative Oratia Native Plant Nursery website says: “The individual sexes [of spinifex] can often cover huge areas of a beach, and it is not unusual to find all of one sex dominating an entire beach. The male flowers are erect spikelets producing masses of wind-blown pollen, while the female plants … form the distinctive spiny tumbleweed seen wheeling along the beach later in the season. Each spine contains a single seed at its base, but many are infertile, having not been pollinated. The miracle is how the female manages to collect the wind-blown pollen when the individual sexes are often at opposite ends of the beach, or even on separate beaches.”

This could be a male flower (upright) surrounded by female flowers, taken at the Tay St entrance to Mount Maunganui’s Main Beach. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Coastlands Plant Nursery at Whakatane, which is the national Dune Revegetation Centre, notes differences between spinifex plants from the east coast and the west coast even when grown in identical conditions in the nursery.

The entry for spinifex in The Cultivation of New Zealand Native Grasses by Lawrie Metcalf (Random House, 2008) mentions that spinifex lost much of its habitat to the introduced marram grass (Ammophila arenaria). However, it has transpired that marram grass created steep dunes more prone to wind erosion. Spinifex and its partner pingao (Desmoschoenus spiralis, another native) bind dunes in a lower profile.

Our native plants: Pennantia baylisiana

Pennantia baylisiana once held the dubious title of being the rarest plant in the world with only one female tree in its native Three Kings Islands. This dire state of affairs began to be remedied in 1945 when Professor Geoff Baylis (1913-2003) of Otago University took six cuttings from the (then) goat-ravaged islands to be grown on at the Government research station at Mt Albert. Three survived and more cuttings were taken from them and then, glory be, one plant spontaneously produced female and male flowers! It is thought that the one surviving tree, while “fundamentally female”, also has some “low-level” male characteristics.

Pennantia baylisiana, complete with berries, photographed in Wellington Botanic Gardens last weekend. Apparently the berries ripen to blue. There is also a specimen growing in the Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Terrain website says: “The single tree known in the wild grows on a scree slope on the northern face of Great Island in the Three Kings group off Cape Reinga, New Zealand. It is still alive today some 65 years later, and has not produced any seedlings on the islands. Forty years after the Pennantia was found Ross Beever (1946-2010), a scientist with Landcare Research, tried to see if he could induce it to produce seed. He was successful and the resulting seedlings have proved to be more fertile than their mother.”

Oratia Native Plant Nursery which assisted Ross in his project, donates all proceeds from the sale of Pennantias to help fund botanical research and to minimise the risk of extinction of other species.

It should be noted that Professor Baylis took some drastic action to try and save the tree (Journal of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture, Vol. 2, No. 1, March 1997, pp. 12–13). Read the entire article here.

“Propagating this lone and sterile tree, not in the best of health because of insect damage, seemed urgent. There was a detachable shoot at its base, which took root in a damp sheltered place in my Dunedin garden and is now very like its parent with four slender trunks. But its canopy trimmed by occasional frost rather than repeated salty gales is taller (7m),” Prof. Baylis wrote.

“While I was unsure that this shoot had really rooted, I was worried by failure both at the Plant Diseases Division at Mt Albert and at Duncan and Davies, New Plymouth, to strike cuttings from the crown. I asked George Smith, the chief propagator at New Plymouth, what I might do to provide better cuttings. ‘Cut the tree down,’ he said, and while I shuddered at the thought, he explained that he was confident about rooting shoots from the stump. But would there be any? Well, the tree had four trunks so I dared to sever one. A year later, the shoots were there. The naval launch on which I was a guest gave them a quick passage to New Plymouth, which happened to be its next port, and Mr Smith soon placed the survival of [the tree] beyond doubt.”

Brave man!

In 2010 New Zealand scientists took 1600 seeds back to the islands to plant. Read more here. The tree’s status today is described as ‘nationally critical’.

Lawrie Metcalfe in The Cultivation of NZ Trees and Shrubs (Raupo, 2011) says in the garden P. baylisiana will grow to 3-4m. “Where a large-leafed tree is required for effect, this magnificent foliage plant is ideal.”

A cross of P. baylisiana with P. carymbosa seen growing at Otari Wilton’s Bush in Wellington. The hybrid has been named Otari Debut. Photo: Sandra Simpson

P. corymbosa (kaikomako) is a relatively common forest tree of mainland New Zealand. Apparently it hybridises quite easily with P. baylisiana. P. cunninghamii (brown beech) is a rainforest tree of eastern Australia. The final tree in the family is P. endlicheri, native to Norfolk Island, once thought to be identical to P. baylisiana but now proved not to be.

The same day Prof. Baylis found P. baylisiana, he also came across the woody vine, Tecomanthe speciosa and managed to save that from extinction too, but that’s another story.

Our native plants: Hibiscus trionum

I came across this little sweetie in an Omokoroa garden several years ago and was surprised to learn it was a “native hibiscus”  as I always imagine hibiscus as large, tropical shrubs, not front-of-the-border temperate zone plants.

Hibiscus trionum. Photo: Sandra Simpson

It’s generally classified as an annual, although in some places may be a two-year plant.

“Although rare in the wild, it naturalises freely from seeds in warm sites throughout the country, even in the southern South Island,” according to Alison Evans in New Zealand in Flower (get a copy from a book fair near you.)

“There is some evidence that Hibiscus trionum may have been introduced to New Zealand by Maori who used the leaves for cleaning hands and may have cultivated it for this purpose and for its attractive flowers.”

Fiona Eadie, in her book 100 Best Native Plants for New Zealand Gardens, reports that there are two very similar types of H. trionum in the country – one native (and which also occurs in Australia) and one that was introduced by man and has naturalised.

The difference, she says, is that the latter has more finely dissected leaves and an almost maroon centre, so I think I’m right is saying that the one pictured here is the true native … or am I? Keep reading.

Flowering is from late spring into autumn and the plant typically forms a small bush about 50cm high. It can tolerate very dry conditions which may even encourage flowering and doesn’t mind coastal winds – but it doesn’t care for very wet positions and frosts. It sets seed readily. Unfortunately, the flowers are no good for picking as they wilt immediately but the seed heads are liked by floral artists.

However, since the two books I’ve referenced were published (1987 and 2008 respectively) there has been a bit of a rethink on the “native” status of H. trionum, something I was alerted to by a recent post of Abbie Jury’s.

Shirley Stuart, curator of the native plants collection at the Dunedin Botanic Garden, has decided to treat H. trionum it as a “non-indigenous fully naturalised native” after doubts about its origins were raised.

The Oratia Native Plant Nursery website says of Hibiscus richardsonii: “Previously known as Hibiscus trionum this yellow-flowered Mercury Islands form is now recognised as the true native species.” Read a full profile of H. richardsonii which is now accorded the name “puarangi”  previously given to H. trionum and which you’ll see is missing that dark centre.

Native or not, H. trionum is a pretty little thing that grows well and should be appreciated on its merits, not where it hails from.

Our native pantry

As we scatter round the country on our summer holidays I thought it might be fun to let you know about some of our native wild food plants.

The native spinach, Tetragonia tetragonioides, is a useful plant in the vege garden over the summer as it tolerates hot, dry conditions when other Spinacea species are prone to bolt.

Native plant expert Mark Dean of Oropi, who founded the renowned Naturally Native nursery, says the easy-to-grow scrambling plant was included in salads and broths for Captain James Cook and his crew of British explorers and has been cultivated in New Zealand since 1809. The Terrain website says that for two centuries it was the only cultivated vegetable in England to have originated from New Zealand or Australia.

Native spinach, pictured at Te Puna Quarry Park’s herb garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Naturally Native website (which includes a recipe) says it can be eaten in much the same way as English spinach. Pick it when you need it though, as the leaves will wilt within a couple of hours.

The plant is also native in Australia (and Japan, Chile and Argentina!) and this interesting article wonders why it hasn’t been recorded as being a staple part of the Aboriginal diet in the Botany Bay area – a mistake by the locals or a mistake by ethnobotanists?

Cook was a great experimenter with foods in his determination to beat scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency that in the 18th century killed more British sailors than enemy action. Although Cook spent three years at sea in the Endeavour, there was not a single death due to scurvy.

Native celery growing just above the tide line on Tiritiri Matangi Island in the Hauraki Gulf. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Apium prostratum or native celery is another plant used by the English explorer. It has thick, grooved stems and a thick, deep taproot and can be found growing wild along the coast. The leaves and stems are able to be eaten raw or cooked and the seeds can be used for flavouring.

Cook’s scurvy grass, Lepidium oleraceum, was thought to have been grazed to extinction until a significant colony was discovered on an island off the coast of Waikato in 2006 – the link at the start of this paragraph notes that 11 new species have recently been identified, although that doesn’t make the plant any less threatened! Here’s another article about the plant and some of the threats it faces.


Cook’s scurvy grass grows in the Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Other native wild foods include native cress (Rorippa divaricata), puha (Sonchus oleraceus, a member of the sow thistle family) and horopito (Pseudowintera colorata). Find a pork and puha recipe here (watercress can be substituted.)


Horopito is a useful ornamental garden plant too. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Horopito was used by Maori as a herbal medicine but more recently has been promoted in its dried form as a substitute for pepper or chilli in foods.

It’s also a useful ornamental plant to brighten up a shady corner. It will grow in deep shade but the more light the plant gets, the brighter its red splotches. The Red Leopard hybrid has a deep-red colour that is maintained well in shade.

Native spinach seeds are available from Kings Seeds in Katikati or Yates; native celery plants from Oratia Native Plant Nursery and horopito from garden centres.

This article was first published in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission. It has been updated.