Pīngao – A Ngāi Tahu taonga

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPīngao, the golden sand sedge (Ficinia spiralis), is an indigenous species once common on sand dunes around New Zealand. The stout, grass-like plant (30-90cm tall) declined dramatically after European settlement and distribution is now patchy. The largest remaining area of pīngao in New Zealand is along Kaitorete Spit, the barrier that separates Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere from the ocean.

Pīngao (pīkao in Ngāi Tahu dialect), is one of several bird, plant, fish and animal species identified as ‘taonga’ (something highly valued, treasured) in the Ngāi Tahu Claims Settlement Act 1998, and Ngāi Tahu is actively  participating in the management of this species in some areas..

Pīngao has long been highly prized by Māori weavers, who like to use its bright orange leaves in tukutuku panels on the walls of wharenui (meeting house),  for weaving kete (bags), whāriki (mats) and other items.  It is one of four key plants used by Māori for weaving, along with harakeke (flax), tī kouka (cabbage tree), and kiekie (a woody vine with long leaves).

 

Usually found on seaward-facing coastal fore-dunes Pīngao  is capable of growing closer to the shoreline than any other sand-binding plant. Along with Spinifex (Spinifex sericeus) in the North Island, it is the most imporOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAtant of the native sand-binders in building and stabilizing coastal sand dunes,  trapping wind-blown sand between its leaves and around its base with the long rhizomes or root-runners.. This works to  create a stable environment in which other plants, birds, insects and animals can thrive – for instance, the rare New Zealand dotterel, the New Zealand pipit and the Australasian harrier have been observed nestling amongst pīngao, which is also an important food source for several species of moth and butterfly.

The decline of pīngao has been attributed to a number of things including burning by early settlers for land development; sand mining, vehicle use,  animal grazing and the introduction of invasive marram grass and yellow tree lupin at the turn of the 20th century.