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Book cover - Alpine Plants of New ZealandAlpine Plants
of New Zealand


Aciphylla colensoi
Speargrass / Spaniard


Aciphylla colensoiReproduced from
Alpine Plants of New Zealand
ISBN 0 7900 0525 5
by kind permission of the author, Lawrie Metcalf and Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd

Publication or other use of images or descriptive text on these pages is unauthorised unless written permission is obtained from the author and publisher. Appropriate acknowledgement of the publication Alpine Plants of New Zealand must always be given.


  • A large herb arising from a strong taproot and forming single or multiple rosettes of very sharp, spine-tipped leaves. The clumps may be up to 90 cm in diameter and 40-50 cm high.
  • Leaves: Rigid, divided into long and narrow segments, all pointing forwards and outwards in all directions. Usually leaves are green or greyish-green with prominent orange or reddish midribs.
  • Flowers: Small, yellowish flowers are produced in dense clusters along strong stems up to a metre or so tall. Long, narrow spines project out from amongst the flowers to give the appearance of quite a formidable protection.

Aciphylla colensoiDistribution & Habitat

  • North and South Islands from Mount Hikurangi to mid Canterbury. Widespread in subalpine to low-alpine areas. 900-1500 metres.
  • Often prominent in subalpine scrub, mixed snow tussock-scrub, herbfields and in grasslands. Usually in moister situations.


  • Identification: This fierce-looking plant is particularly conspicuous at flowering time when the bright orange flowering stems stand out from afar. With all species of speargrass the male and female flowers are on separate plants with the male usually being the more showy.
  • Related species: There are some 40 species of Aciphylla, most of which occur in alpine regions. They range from quite small species no more than a few centimetres tall to those up to 2 metres or more tall at flowering.
  • Other: Some have thought the spiny nature of speargrasses to have been a protection against the browsing activities of the now extinct moa, but in view of the ease with which introduced animals such as sheep, rabbits and hares browse on them the spines are unlikely to have afforded much protection against browsing moa. A more likely explanation is that the spiny nature of the plant is a response to habitat, particularly as a means of moderating the effects of dessicating winds.


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Reproduced from Alpine Plants of New Zealand:

Also see the article by Raymond Mole on:
New Zealand Alpine Plants: A Challenge for Growers


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Last updated: March 1, 2021