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Aciphylla glacialis 1028.jpg
Aciphylla glacialis
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Tracheophytes
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Eudicots
Clade: Asterids
Order: Apiales
Family: Apiaceae
Subfamily: Apioideae
Tribe: Aciphylleae
Genus: Aciphylla
J.R. Forster & G. Forster

Coxella Cheeseman & Hemsl.

Aciphylla is a genus of about 40 species of herbaceous plants in the family Apiaceae, all but two of them endemic to New Zealand (the remaining two species are found only in Australia). They range from small cushion plants to tall flower spikes surrounded by rosettes of stiff, pointed leaves, the latter probably adaptations to prevent browsing by moa. Their common name is speargrass or Spaniard. Most Acipylla species live in subalpine or alpine habitats in the South Island. Fragrant oil extracted from some large species, known as taramea, is still used as a perfume by Māori.


Like other species in the family Apiaceae, speargrasses have taproots and small flowers, which are clustered into inflorescences called umbels.[1] Species can be distinguished by size, habit, flower head and bract size and shape, leaf shape, and the type of stipules growing at the leaf base.[2] Speargrasses in the A. aurea group (six species and three tag-named taxa) have milky sap, while most other species have clear sap.[3] Aciphylla is dioecious, with separate male and female plants which do not flower every year. Because of this, identifying plants to species can depend on leaf characters and locality.[4] The seeds of Aciphylla are winged schizocarps dispersed by the wind.[5]

Many species of speargrass have tough, rigid leaves and flower bracts tipped with long sharp spikes, arranged in one or more rosettes which present spines in every direction. This form is hypothesised to have evolved to deter browsing by birds: the extinct giant moa.[2] The two large-leaved species endemic to the Chatham Islands, which never had moa, have soft leaves without spikes.[1]

Speargrasses range from small, inconspicuous herbs to large spiky mounds, but they take four main forms:[4]

  1. Large speargrasses, often known as Spaniards (although this somewhat derogatory term is avoided in recent publications) or by their Māori name taramea, usually over 50 cm tall, with tough pointed leaves
  2. Small speargrasses, less than 50 cm tall (small speargrasses are collectively known as papaī by Māori, though this name really refers to their tap root), with a variety of leaf types from soft to thistle-like
  3. Sparsely-leaved small species that grow amongst tussocks, and are difficult to see unless in flower
  4. Small cushion forms with rigid leaves, living in alpine areas


Around 38–40 species of Aciphylla are recognised, along with 9 forms known only by informal tag names, which may or may not represent distinct species.[1][4] The genus is in need of taxonomic revision: some species may be hybrids; similar species with adjoining distributions such as Aciphylla aurea and A. ferox may in fact be the same species; and tag-named taxa such as Aciphylla "Cass" may belong in an existing species, or need formal description and naming.[3] The following species list is from Mark (2021)[4] with some names from Salmon (1991):[6]

Large speargrasses[edit]

Small speargrasses[edit]

Sparse-leaved speargrasses[edit]

Cushion speargrasses[edit]

There are also two Australian species:


All but two species of Aciphylla are confined to New Zealand; the remaining two are endemic to Australia. Most species live in or near the alpine zone, but they range from mountains to coast. The group reaches its highest diversity in the South Island.[1][4]

Cultural use[edit]

Māori on occasion plaited sandals out of Aciphylla leaves for travel over snowy terrain. More important, though, was the aromatic gum extracted from the leaves, used in scented oils and sachets.[7] The Ngāi Tahu people of the South Island knew the larger Aciphylla species, especially Aciphylla aurea, as taramea, and the resin (ware or wai-whenua) was referred to as ware-taramea.[8] The smaller Aciphylla species were not used as fragrance, although their taproot, known as papaī, was eaten.[8]

Taramea resin was traditionally collected by cutting or burning plants in the evening, and gathering the exuded gum in the morning. Leaves could also be gathered, plaited, and heated over several days to force out the gum into a gourd.[9] The ware-taramea was mixed with animal fat (from kererū, tītī,[9] weka, tūī, or kiore) to preserve the fragrance, and was worn in a pouch next to the skin known as a hei-taramea.[8] The aromatic gum was a valuable trade good and gift.

Taramea perfume is still prepared commercially by Ngāi Tahu, using a steam extraction method on hand-harvested leaves.[9]


Many Aciphylla species are threatened by introduced mammals, such as domestic sheep, hares (which can eat the leaves from the side to avoid the spiny tips), and feral pigs (which will dig up plants to eat the taproot).[1] Widespread conversion of the New Zealand high country for sheep farming and pasture is also a threat to the group.[1]

Pests and diseases[edit]

Lyperobius huttoni feeding on male A. squarrosa flower in the Blairich Range, Marlborough, New Zealand

Aciphylla squarrosa has a species of beetle, the speargrass weevil (Lyperobius huttoni), which completely depends on it for food: adults feed on the leaves and flower stalks, and larvae on the roots, although it appears to do little damage to adult speargrass. The decline of A. squarrosa on the mainland and predation by rats and mice had reduced the North Island L. huttoni population by the 2000s to around 150 individuals, living on cliffs of Wellington's south coast.[10] A. squarrosa grows at low altitudes on both the south coast and nearby rodent-free Mana Island, so in 2006–2007 40 weevils were translocated to a speargrass patch on Mana, where they have bred successfully and spread.[11]

In the Chatham Islands Aciphylla dieffenbachii is the sole host of another endangered flightless weevil, Hadramphus spinipennis or coxella weevil.[12] Both weevil and its host are threatened by browsing mammals.


  1. ^ a b c d e f Shepherd, Lara; Perrie, Leon (2023-01-20). "An introduction to speargrasses – plants with a prickly reputation". Te Papa’s Blog. Retrieved 2023-05-22.
  2. ^ a b Shepherd, Lara; Perrie, Leon (2023-03-01). "Getting through speargrass defences: how to safely collect samples of a dangerous plant". Te Papa’s Blog. Retrieved 2023-05-22.
  3. ^ a b Shepherd, Lara; Perrie, Leon (2023-02-08). "Speargrass collecting – a whirlwind tour of Te Waipounamu South Island". Te Papa’s Blog. Retrieved 2023-05-22.
  4. ^ a b c d e Mark, Alan (2021). Above the Treeline: A nature guide to alpine New Zealand (2nd ed.). Nelson: Potton & Burton. p. 133. ISBN 978-1-988550-11-4.
  5. ^ Thorsen, Michael J.; Dickinson, Katharine J.M.; Seddon, Philip J. (2009-11-20). "Seed dispersal systems in the New Zealand flora". Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics. 11 (4): 285–309. doi:10.1016/j.ppees.2009.06.001.
  6. ^ Salmon, John T. (1991). Native New Zealand Flowering Plants. Auckland: Reed.
  7. ^ Orbell, Margaret (1985). The Natural World of the Maori. Auckland: Collins. pp. 47–51. ISBN 0-00-217219-4.
  8. ^ a b c Dobson-Waitere, Aaria; MacIntosh, Robin; Ellison, Matapura F.; Smallfield, Bruce M.; van Klink, John W. (2021). "Taramea, a treasured Māori perfume of Ngāi Tahu from Aciphylla species of Aotearoa New Zealand: a review of Mātauranga Māori and scientific research". Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand. 52 (1): 1–17. doi:10.1080/03036758.2020.1856147. ISSN 0303-6758.
  9. ^ a b c "Taramea". MEA Natural Perfume Oil New Zealand. Retrieved 2023-05-22.
  10. ^ Department of Conservation (31 March 2006). "Weevil rescue underway". Scoop News. Retrieved 2023-05-22.
  11. ^ Miskelly, Colin (2015-11-19). "Speargrass weevils thriving on Mana Island". Te Papa’s Blog. Retrieved 2023-05-22.
  12. ^ Emberson, R. M.; Early, J. W.; Marris, J. W. M.; Syrett, P. (1996). Research into the status and distribution of Chatham Islands endangered invertebrates (PDF). Science for Conservation. ISBN 978-0-478-01833-2.

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