In the “Pingao (or Pikao) the Golden Sand Sedge

The Story of Pikao
Pikao as Taoka
The Sustainable Harvest of Pikao

Pikao has a strong cultural, spiritual and traditional significance to Maori. It has legends associated with it and is highly prized as a weaving material. The renaissance in Maori culture has served pikao well as it has meant that attention has been drawn to its plight and attempts to re-establish it to provide a sustainable source of weaving material has assisted in its conservation.

Note: The Ngai Tahu use the word pikao to describe Desmoschoenus spiralis, while North Island iwi use the word pingao. The difference in dialect between North and South Island is significant and pikao has been used here reflecting the geographic origin of its writing (Otago).

The Story of Pikao

He Whakatauki:

"Manaakitia nga tukemata o Tane"

"Caring for the eyebrows of Tane"

In the beginning of time there was a great conflict between Tane Mahuta, God of the Forest, and his brother Takaroa, God of the Sea. Takaroa was jealous of Tane Mahuta's success in separating Ranginui, the Sky Father from Papa-tu-a-nuku the Earth Mother. Tane Mahuta tried to end the warring between them and as a sign of peace plucked out his eyebrows and gave them to Takaroa. Takaroa's jealousy was so great that he could not find it in his heart to forgive Tane, and threw the eyebrows back onto the shore. There they grow today as Pikao, the Golden Sand Sedge, as the boundary between the forest and the sea, and in his continuing anger, Takaroa is still fighting against the domains of Tane Mahuta.

The Seaweed Children

Another Rangitane version of the story of pikao, is pikao as one of the seaweed children on the fringes of the sea. From her home she looked up to the land and saw the young and handsome kakaho dancing on the sand dunes. Each time the kakaho made his appearance Pikao became more and more enamoured. Finally she asked permission from Takaroa to leave the sea to meet her lover. Takaroa granted her permission with words of warning that she would never make it.

However driven by blind love, she left the seaweed and crawled across the hot sand. As she struggled up she began to call to the kakaho - but he was interested only in himself. He was in love with his own shape and did not answer pikao's calls. In desperation she called back to Takaroa, who could do nothing but shower her with spray. And there on the sand dunes, the pingao remains to this day.

The children of papa-tu-a-nuku however intervened in the story, and they harvested the pikao and the kakaho and united them in the tukutuku panels on the walls of the wharenui. Each whatu or stich on the tukutuku is known as a living eye and represents a link from the tribal ancestors to the unborn of tomorrow.

Pikao as Taoka

Tuku-tuku panel. Photo: CDVN Bulletin 1: Tukutuku panel; Harvest Methods.
Tuku-tuku panel

Pikao is regarded as a Taoka (a treasure) by Tangata Whenua as it is one of four native fibres used by iwi for weaving, and is the only fibre that needs no enhancement on the brilliant yellow gold colour it goes when dried. This property has given pikao an elevated status among Maori weavers. Pikao is used extensively on tuku-tuku panels in the wharenui, where the legends of the iwi are told, as well as in the manufacture of kete, whariki and potae (bags hats and mats) and in decorative and modern weaving. The background of this website is pikao woven into a kete. Pikao was worn as a chest protector in battle by South Island Maori and was also a food item, with the young shoots being steamed and eaten.

"Kohikohi kohikohi pikao-e

Mo nga kete raukura o te rangi-e"

Gather up the pikao grass

For the treasured baskets of the sky"

The weaving characteristics of pikao vary around the country as a result of the varying growth habits. Therefore in some areas long leaves of fibre for weaving will be harvested whereas in other places much more fibre may be harvested due to a more compact growth habit and therefore shorter leaves.

The Sustainable Harvest of Pikao

The traditonal pikao harvest was conducted in autumn and the technique employed was to remove the head for the leaves and at the same time remove a side shoot from the plant and transplant it deep in the sand next to the parent plant. This was to ensure the pikao survived, and was also a means to thank Tane Mahuta for his abundance.

In the 1980s an increase demand was experienced for a supply of pikao for weaving. This occurred at a time after pikao had experienced a decline in abundance and this prompted Forest Research Institute to conducted an investigation examining what method of harvest was the most sustainable. The effect of three harvesting methods (clipping of leaves, cutting of whole shoots and wrenching of the middle leaves) were investigated, measuring factors such as plant survival, number of shoots, number of flower heads, harvest season (summer or autumn), and fibre yield.

They found that clipping not onto resulted in the least adverse effects to the plant (survival and mean number of shoots were comparable to unharvested plants), this method was also the most effective (greater number of leaves harvested) and most efficient, as only desirable leaves were selected for clipping so there was minimal wastage as a result of discarded leaves. Both the other methods resulted in damage to the growth shoot causing severe mortality and would inevitably result in some wastage.

Clipping has been recommended as the most desirable harvesting method that will promote a sustainable supply of fibre. Cutting and wrenching should be discouraged as these methods not only damage the growth shoot causing significant mortality, but are also wasteful. It has also be suggested that sustained cutting or wrenching to a pikao plant may also contribute to foredune instability due to a reduction in vegetation cover.


Cultural Significance

  1. Herbert, A. and Oliphant, J. (1991). Pingao: The Golden Sand Sedge. Nga Puna Waihanga, New Zealand.

Sustainable Harvest

  1. Herbert, J. Bergin, D. and Kimberley, M. (1996). Sustainable Harvesting of Pingao. Indigenous Forest Management Group, Forest Technology Division, Forest Research Institute, Rotorua.
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