The distinctive form of Austrostipa stipoides gives these grasses the appearance of tawny-coloured ‘flames’ upon the shoreline – an impression that is amplified by the barren nature of the sites that it often inhabits. This seems very much in keeping with the origins of some of Auckland’s rocky shorelines – formed as they were from the fires of our volcanic field.
A. stipoides is the sole member of this Australian genus that is native to New Zealand. The species that comprise Austrostipa were previously considered to belong to Stipa, a well-known genus of grasses that many northern Hemisphere gardeners are familiar with – particularly the impressive giant, Stipa gigantea, and a flowing meadow-like species, S. tenuissima (both of which feature prominently in the work of naturalistic designers in England and northern Europe).
In comparatively recent times, two of the common names noted above crept into association with this species. This intrigued me, as most plants bear more benign titles than ‘Coastal immorality grass’ and ‘Buggar grass’. The matter became even more interesting when a nurseryman friend of mine told me that those irreverent names had been deliberately applied by a couple of botanists (evidently possessed of a good sense of humour), partially with the intention of just seeing whether they would fly or not.
This should perhaps come as no surprise when our native flora contains such monikers as ‘Hairy Teat’ (for the critically-endangered Mazus novaezeelandiae ssp. impolitus f. hirtus)1. I should state here that there is nothing wrong with the occasional invention of new common names – as they often arrive in an arbitrary fashion, and are not supposed to be used for proper identification or discussion. Furthermore, they are simply validated by their own uptake.
Those common names, ‘Coastal immorality grass’ and ‘Buggar grass’, do actually present us with some tangible information about the plant, for they refer to the indelicate surprise that the sharp tips of the leaves can cause if one unwittingly comes into contact with them. This should not deter anyone from planting this species (where the right situation exists), as its sharpness isn’t in the same league as such natives as ‘Spaniards’ (our Aciphylla spp.) or matagouri (Discaria toumatou), and contact of that nature is reasonably easily avoided.
In cultivation, Austrostipa stipoides is a classic example of a plant that requires resistance to achieve its full effect. Without salt winds and dry conditions, it can become floppy and eventually peter out. It is therefore advisable for the same coastal conditions in which it naturally occurs, and is a useful species for coastal gardens in harsh locations.
A. stipoides is only ever found on the coast, where it can grow on rocky ground, elevated mudflats and shellbanks (such as the habitat shown above). Although it is perfectly capable of withstanding inundation with seawater (on very high tides), it is essentially a plant of well-drained sites. Within New Zealand, Austrostipa stipoides occurs in the North Island, as far south as northern Taranaki, and in a very small portion of the South Island (at its northern tip, within the Nelson province). It also occurs in the southeast of Australia, including Tasmania.