Aciphylla, New Zealand’s Spaniards

I don’t know about you, but when I go on vacation to a far off and exotic landscape, I make a list of a few plants that I want to see. In gardens, it’s easy to do this, especially if the plant is a particularly nice looking one. The real challenge, and reward, is finding it in it’s native habitat. Like my last post, this one today is about finding plants on my list of ‘must see’ plants.

Aciphylla is a genus of plants that are very unique to New Zealand and Australia. I wanted to make sure I saw at least one Aciphylla species, and so far I have been able to see a few. The first was Aciphylla aurea, Golden Spaniard, and A squarrosa, Common Speargrass. I saw this one at the Christchurch Botanic Garden, in the alpine house. There were metal fences separating the walkways from the plants in this area, and I figured it was to deter any sort of shenanigans and defacing of plant life.

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Aciphylla aurea, nearly as robust as A horrida
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A squarrosa, looking like a rosette of grey/green toothpicks (some of which are forked!)

More recently I came across quite a few Aciphylla horrida (Horrid Spaniard) while camping. I now realize that the metal barrier in the alpine house was to protect visitors from the plants.

The leaves of A horrida, while very interesting, are deadly. I have never come across a more benign looking and yet so ready to destroy you plant. The leaves are frail and weak in stature, but are surprisingly tough. In fact, they are rigid enough to be classified as woody, in my book. The edges of each leaf are razor sharp, and the edge runs the entire length of the leaf. The point of each leaf is similar to the Ginsu knives I have in my kitchen back home, except they are sharper. Yuccas have nothing on these plants.

Each dense mound of leaves created by this plant is very much like a cactus, even though it looks much more like a clump of Iris or even Watsonia. Even the seed heads are well defended, being covered in spines that area every bit as sharp as the leaves. Apparently the same pressure from browsing animals (i.e. the extinct Moa) that shaped the odd form of Pseudopanax ferox was what pressured Aciphylla into defending itself so vigorously.

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A plant very much like… a throne made out of swords. Surprisingly spiky!

All the danger aside, Aciphylla species are amazing architectural plants, being evergreen and very tidy in appearance. They have sharp angles, and are very well defined in their outline. They make awesome plants for having clean lines in the garden, and do an even better job if you just get a little closer… just don’t touch!

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