Legend has it that Tāne Mahuta, god of the forest, plucked out his eyebrows and gave them to Tangaroa, god of the sea, as a peace offering. Tangaroa cast the eyebrows on to the shore, where they grew as pīngao, one of the few native plants capable of surviving there.
Sand dunes are a harsh habitat, a battlefield between sea and shore. Frequent gales, reinforced with sand and salt spray, bury anything and everything under a gritty blanket. But the more exposed, bare and unstable the sand, the better pīngao likes it—in fact, it needs the continuous movement of sand around its leaves, base and roots to survive. Pīngao sends out rope-like rhizomes that bind and stabilise the dunes, and this extensive root system captures what little water is available.
So, if this plant is so superbly adapted for survival in such hostile conditions, why is it listed as an endangered species?
Pīngao was once widespread from Northland to Rakiura/Stewart Island. Now it is found only in a few remnant populations. Its demise is due to fires, vehicles, grazing, trampling by humans and livestock, and browsing by introduced pests like rabbits, possums and hares.
In A Pakeha’s Recollections, writer Murray Gladstone Thomson recalls seeing local boys set fire to the native grasses, likely including pīngao, on the sand dunes of Otago beaches to keep warm while they were out collecting frostfish in the 1880s. Years later, Thomson advocated planting introduced marram grasses on the same beaches to try to control dune erosion. These marram grasses smothered pīngao, destroying the windblown dunes that it needed to survive.
Culturally, pīngao is highly prized as a taonga by weavers for its naturally vibrant yellow and orange colours, a sharp contrast to the pale tones of harakeke and kiekie. It was used in tukutuku panels to decorate the walls of wharenui. It was also used for fine plaited kete (bags), whāriki (mats), pōtae (hats), pare (headbands), tātua (belts) and pōkeka (rain capes). “Pōkeka made of flax, tussock and pīngao were regarded as thoroughly waterproof,” writes James Herries Beattie in Traditional Lifeways of the Southern Maori. Beattie also notes the tough leaf of pīngao was used to weave tāhau taupā (shin guards) and poho taupā (chest protectors) to protect warriors in battle.
Today, DOC identifies pīngao as a keystone species, one which creates a home for other native coastal plants. Community and iwi groups have successfully re-established it in scattered pockets around the country.