Lancewood hunting

Lancewood hunting

Field-work is one of the best aspects of working as a Natural Environment curator at Te Papa. I get to spend about three weeks a year in the field collecting plant specimens.

Te Papa’s 4WD. If seen outside Wellington, there is a good chance this vehicle is being used to collect plants, whales, or fossils.

I’ve recently returned from ten days field-work in the South Island, collecting samples for our research on lancewood (horoeka, Pseudopanax crassifolius) and fierce lancewood (P. ferox). This is in collaboration with Lara Shepherd from Massey University. Lancewood is a common forest tree and we are using DNA analyses to determine where it survived in New Zealand during the last glacial period. This follows our previous research on the forest fern Hooker’s spleenwort (Asplenium hookerianum), which seems to have survived throughout New Zealand, and conflicts with evidence that Metrosideros trees (rata and pohutukawa) were confined to only a few refugia.

Fierce lancewood, named for its bigger ‘teeth’ on the leaf margins, is more sparsely distributed that lancewood. Given the discontinuous distribution of fierce lancewood, we expected each population to exhibit its own diagnostic set of genetic variation. Preliminary results suggest this might be true for Auckland and Wellington populations, but, at this stage, we can’t genetically distinguish populations from the southern South Island, indicating the geographic discontinuity there is a geologically-recent phenomenon.We collected specimens to augment our existing sampling (the northern South Island, in particular, was a bit of a gap for us for both lancewood and fierce lancewood).

Apex of a leaf from a juvenile fierce lancewood, showing the curious ‘paint-splash’ coloration. I have heard it hypothesised that the prominent white splashes draw attention to the marginal ‘teeth’, themselves a putative defence against moa herbivory.

The trip was largely successful, with the weather good and the plants cooperative (in that we could find them where they were supposed to be). We now have to process the samples in the laboratory, which isn’t nearly as much fun but still necessary if we are to address the questions we’re interested in.

A juvenile of fierce lancewood.


  1. Yes the lancewood is indeed an interesting tree. I just returned to NZ after almost a decade away, and over the Waitangi weekend I went out and starting looking for a mature lancewood. I met an old chat who used to be a logger and he has told me of some ‘giant specimens’in the Pelorus area. I will head up there soon and have a look. I’m logging (data) on any large specimens, including geomatic (positional) data, imagery and attributes such as bole circumference, height and canopy. What fun to be amongst such beautiful trees!

  2. Hi Peter,
    Pseudopanax ferox is one of my favourite trees. It’s good to hear it is taking over the world! Have you ever seen it self-sowing in Ireland?
    I personally don’t know a great deal about Rongoa Maori (i.e., the traditional medicinal usage of NZ plants). However, in case you haven’t already come across them, the following websites might be useful:
    * ; the Murdoch Riley book on this page is fairly comprehensive, if you can track it down.
    * I think you’d also find this book useful (with the information potentially more accessible)
    * and pages that I didn’t know about from my own institution (!);
    Kind regards,

  3. hi
    We have a number of Pseudopanax incl ferox in our plant collection at Talbot Botanic Gardens at Malahide Castle , Ireland . despite a very cold winter the plants survived and are growing well . As my son lives in New Zealand we visited during 2008 and enjoyed seeing a planting of Pseudopanax ferox at Nelson Airport, we are currently looking to expand our collections of New Zealand plants and would welcome any information you could supply on the usage of Phornium tenax in assocation with Ronoga Maori
    Peter Cuthbert
    Senior Executive Parks Superintendent

  4. So, then what’s the point of having no backbone if you can’t squish into tight spaces?

  5. I’m sure the colossal squid would love to go on tour, but it wouldn’t want to be squished in the vehicle and the tour logistics could be a bit scary.

    Best not.

  6. Yes, fierce lancewood is probably as fierce as the colossal squid is colossal…

    I think we could get the entire squid in the vehicle, but we might have to squish it in. Do you think it would like to tour?

  7. Fierce lancewood, I love it! Maybe there’s a “Fierce squid” out there somewhere? or is that what’s in the tank?

    Oh and I’m sure you could get a medium size squid in that Te Papa vehicle if you tried.

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