A three year project aimed at bringing together Mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) and Western Science to reverse the decline of an endangered native sedge culminated in a gathering of scientists, conservationists, iwi and weavers from around New Zealand at a recent workshop hosted by Lincoln University.
Led by Dr Hannah Buckley
, a Senior Lecturer at Lincoln, the project's research team has been investigating the genetic and morphological variation within one of New Zealand’s endemic plant species, pīngao. Otherwise known as pīkao, golden sand sedge or Ficinia spiralis, the grass is one of two main sand-binding plants in New Zealand and plays an essential role in the coastal ecosystem..
It is considered a taonga (treasure) by Māori because it is one of four native plants used for traditional weaving, and the only one that needs no colour enhancement. The species is under threat from burning, grazing, coastal development, competition with invasive species and being trampled by both animals and people.
The four main organisations working together on the pīngao project are Te Taumutu Rūnanga, Ngāti Hinewaka, Lincoln University and Victoria University of Wellington. The research team have been investigating different aspects of pīngao ecology and the ways people have engaged with the plant. Physical plant characteristics such as leaf dimensions, root dimensions, flammability, colour and nutrient content of the leaves, as well as sand characteristics, population genetics and biodiversity associated with the plants are all being investigated and compared among populations. The team are trying to find links between them and the environment to explain the variation observed among pīngao populations across New Zealand.
Dr Buckley says two workshops were held in 2014 to discuss the direction of the project and to educate everyone involved on all the different aspects of pīngao ecological and cultural importance. “As 2016 is the final year of the currently-funded project, one last workshop was held to enable everyone involved to weave with pīngao from around New Zealand.
“Some of the preliminary findings from the scientific research were presented and future directions for the project were discussed. The team’s main goal now is to raise more funding to continue research into the importance of genetic variation in this species for reversing its population decline and ensuring a sustainable weaving supply into the future.”
Long-time weaver and propagator of pīngao from Northland Betsy Young, who was invited to talk at the workshop about the practical side of caring for pingao, says, “People were fascinated with the seed gathering and storage, the length of time for propagation from the beginning to the planting out on to the sand dunes. The care that’s required is like caring for your whanau.”
Dr Tim Curran
, Senior Lecturer in Ecology at Lincoln, says, “The workshop was a great opportunity to bring together ideas from traditional knowledge and science to discuss nation-wide variation in pingao, from its morphological differences, to how it is used and the conservation issues it faces. By connecting iwi, weavers and researchers we can work together to secure a future for this important and iconic species.”