Speargrass collecting – a whirlwind tour of Te Waipounamu South Island

Speargrass collecting – a whirlwind tour of Te Waipounamu South Island

Sun, rain, hail, mist and snow – Research Scientist Lara Shepherd and Botany Curator Leon Perrie encountered them all over an epic six-week plant collecting trip late in 2022. Their aim was to collect Aciphylla speargrasses for a research project to determine the number of species. Here is an overview of the trip and selected highlights.

Our collecting trip took us from Nelson to Southland, and almost everywhere in between!

A map of the South Island of New Zealand with major towns and cities labeled. There are red squares of different shades marking out different places that were visited on a trip.
Map based on Lara’s iNaturalist observations taken during the trip.

We reached some amazing locations, many of which were new for us.

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The weather was very variable – we had everything from sun to snow.

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Speargrass research

The main aim of our fieldtrip was to collect specimens of the Aciphylla aurea group of taramea. This group includes six species and three tag-named entities, which are all united in having milky sap.

A clump of white sap from part of a plant.
The milky sap exuded from a cut flower stalk. This is a feature of all the species in the Aciphylla aurea group (other species have clear sap). Photo by Lara Shepherd

We are using DNA analyses with the aim of resolving issues identified by Manaaki Whenua’s David Glenny, a botanist who has worked on speargrasses and with whom we are collaborating.

For example, Aciphylla ferox and Aciphylla aurea look very similar. Aciphylla ferox occurs in the northern South Island and Aciphylla aurea grows in the central and southern South Island. Where does A. ferox stop and A. aurea start? Or are they actually the same species?

How should the three tag name entities be recognised? Do they belong within existing species (and if so, which species?) or should they be named as separate species?

A spiky speargrasss sitting on the side of a rocky hill.
Aciphylla “Cass” from Mt Cass. This tag named entity only grows on limestone from North Canterbury to Marlborough and mostly on private land. Photo by Leon Perrie
Aciphylla “Cass” at Puhi Peaks Station. The white limestone rocks on which this plant grows are clearly visible on the hillside behind. Photo Lara Shepherd.

We would particularly like to thank Scott Bennett (Transpower), Nicky McArthur (Puhi Peaks Station) and Sally Peter (Isolation Station) for facilitating access to sites where Aciphylla “Cass” grows.

During our trip, we collected 139 specimens from the Aciphylla aurea group. These will be used for the next steps in our research.

A secondary goal of the trip was to collect as many additional speargrass species as possible. If our DNA methods prove informative then we would like to examine other taxonomic problems in the genus. For instance, we suspect some species presently recognised may actually be hybrids. Using our DNA data we also want to construct a family tree to understand the relationships between the species.

During this trip, we managed to collect 323 speargrass specimens in total, representing 24 speargrass species.

As well as speargrasses we also saw numerous other interesting native plants (and animals!) on our travels. A selection is shown below.

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  1. Thanks for a very interesting blog.

    I have been interested in this genus for a long time and managed to grow a few species in my garden in Dunedin. John Dawson and Jim Le Comte were the “goto” people back then.

    In my garden, which was too hot and dry for the plants to flourish, they managed to survive as long as they had managed to get a good tap root established. Even the likes of A. pinnatifida survived when its usual habitat on Mt Burns was growing in meltwater.

    The Alpine Garden Group members told me it is not hard to establish aciphyllas from rosette cuttings but that the plants never developed and strong tap root.

    I will be very interested in the results of your research.


    1. Author

      Thanks Pat – interesting to hear it is possible to grow them!

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