Tuesday, January 20, 2009


'Lancewood', alias horoeka, aka Pseudopanax this or that, is probably my favourite New Zealand shrub. It comes in two distinctly different forms. As a juvenile it presents as a spiky unwelcoming bunch of sword-like long sharp fronds radiating downwards off a stark wooden stake. Eventually, after a very long time (the progress in some examples is truly glacial) the lancewood becomes a fairly normal tree, with big fluffy juicy leaves and an umbrella-like area of foliage; perhaps its most unusual feature as an adult is that these leaves are stored way up at the top of a quite tall trunk.

As a child I wondered at the fact that these two quite different plants were really related. They are like the tadpole and the frog, or the caterpillar and the butterfly with their dramatic metamorphosis. But the life cycle of the lancewood happens so slowly you can't see it happen. You just have to live a long time and wait. But I have never managed to catch it changing from the staunch and defensive little set-faced urchin into the liberation of middle-age, with its wild free swagger as the wind catches the branches and shakes the leaves high up in the forest cover.

I like the youthful lancewood best, especially the "saw tooth" variety that looks as though the forest elves have hand-painted little rusty daubs on each serrated tooth of the blade, splashing blobs of other colours artfully and tracing a red ochre line roughly along the length of each spine.

I was always told that the dimorphism is all about evolution, and it's to do with the moa. The young plant is inedible, very uninviting to animals browsing near the ground. It's not until the plant has grown up out of the range of a tall flightless bird, that it produces the tasty fleshy leaves. Seems like a good theory.

And I can relate to the need to use a disguise to deter predators. Us women have to do that all the time, especially when we are young and delectable, or risk being told by the policemen of our town that an attack was all our fault because we flaunted ourselves (which includes the sin of becoming deliciously intoxicated).

Ah yes, there's something to be said for the advancing age, when we don't have to either hide or work hard to be attractive. Now that's freedom.


Vanda Symon said...

When we were on holiday in Haast last year and wandering in the amazing bust, there were wonderful examples of juvenile Lancewoods, next to teenagers, next to adults, so you could clearly see the progression - the kids were fascinated that such a weird little tree could turn out so normal.

one billion daleks said...

Not being indigenous myself, I had no idea about this plant. I have a couple popping up on my section, and frankly - didn't particularly like the look of 'em!

Anyway, in light of your post I had a Google for some images of the adult tree - not many pictures around as it turns out, possibly because people dig up the juvenile plant without realising that it grows out of it's rather awkward-looking adolescent phase.

So, in light of your very eloquent post, I will refrain from uprooting my specimens ... though um, I guess their "truly glacial" growth suggests they're unlikely to develop in any meaningful timeframe.

maps said...

I also like horoeka. It reminds me of the rotor blades on helicopters.

Claire Beynon said...

Hi PC - I've been on another orbit this past week or so and see you've been 'elsewhere', too. The eccentric Pseudopanax is my all-time favourite NZ native, too. Lovely to hear you sing its praises. Thank you ++ for your generous Margot Fonteyn acknowledgement a wee while back. Much appreciated. Hope all's well you and that we get to catch up at the NZSA lunch next month. L, CB

The Paradoxical Cat said...

Thanks all, for your comments. I've been away on a research trip that took me to the Waitakere ranges of Auckland, in search of photos of the plant in all its stages. Will post them asap. It was so good to get back into some 'real' NZ bush after so many years living here in the south.

one billion daleks said...

" ... in search of photos of the plant in all its stages"

You went to the Waitakere ranges in search of photos ...?
... and there was I thinking that Google was the right place to go in search of photos!

Mind you, your comment might explain the lack of Google images I suppose ...

(er sorry, I couldn't resist - feel free to engage in retaliatory nitpicking ;)

The Paradoxical Cat said...

Hmm - thanks for the constructive criticism Daleks - in my idiolect it's obviously OK to say I went out in search of photos. For me the word "photo" denotes the existence of a capturable scene, as well as the finished product. It's more like an abstract idea rather than a concrete entity. And now that such scenes are captured digitally the word "photos" is for me even further removed from the hard copies I used to process in my dark room.

You will find sloppy expression and cliche here on the Tabby's blog. Sorry about that! This is supposed to be my playground...

What is truly amazing, is that the Tabby even has a blog :-)