Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

New Zealand: Fierce lancewood

with 27 comments

Fierce Lancewood Trees 5552

At Otari-Wilton’s Bush in Wellington on February 20th I saw specimens of fierce lancewood, Pseudopanax ferox (as in ferocious). According to a sign there: “When the lancewood reaches a certain height, it changes shape and turns into a small branching tree. The leaves change too and become shorter, softer and lose their fierce hooks.” Here’s that later stage, which I certainly wouldn’t have suspected to be the same kind of tree:

Mature Fierce Lancewood Tree 5564

For more information, you can visit plantlust.com, which describes fierce lancewood in a way that I can’t top: “One of those cool dinosaur plants found down Kiwi way that catches the eye and triggers the lust gene in plant geeks and adventurous gardeners.”

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


Written by Steve Schwartzman

May 11, 2015 at 5:15 AM

27 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. It doesn’t look inviting at first. The spines on the lances are probably laced with a toxin. Just guessing.

    Jim in IA

    May 11, 2015 at 7:20 AM

    • No question that it was pictorially inviting as soon as I saw it.

      The description at the New Zealand Plant Conservation Network mentions “a striking juvenile form consisting of down pointing roundish long narrow very tough leaves that have irregular blunt bumps along the edge…,” but there’s no mention of toxin. It seems the physical deterrent is sufficient.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 11, 2015 at 10:20 AM

  2. Very cool. I think there are vines that do that as well, aren’t there? like you I would never have suspected these two to be the same.


    May 11, 2015 at 10:08 AM

    • This is the first such plant I remember encountering. If you come across a reference to a vine that behaves this way, please let me know. (All that comes to mind at the moment is the way poison ivy can grow as a forb or as a high-climbing vine.) In the insect world, as we know best from caterpillars and butterflies, such dramatic changes are the norm.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 11, 2015 at 10:27 AM

      • Yes, I couldn’t remember exacty but it was the poison ivy I was thinking of, going from forb to vine. I recently saw that Wisteria can be trained as a standard that grows into a tree but I’m not sure that is the same thing.


        May 11, 2015 at 3:21 PM

        • What I haven’t been able to find out is whether a given poison ivy plant can grow in only one way or whether it can start as a forb and turn into a climbing vine (going the other way, from vine to forb, doesn’t seem possible).

          Steve Schwartzman

          May 11, 2015 at 3:25 PM

          • That is a good question. When I lived in Peoria I saw mostly the vines climbing up trees~ they could grow fairly large. In the woods up here, I generally see the forbs, with only a few vines growing up trees. Same number of trees, so that suggests there may in fact be a genetic variation in the ivy. Hm.


            May 12, 2015 at 9:24 AM

  3. The variation in our world is so amazing…Love the photos.

  4. I would imagine a hedge of the younger plants to be quite impenetrable but as it grows the gaps would become a bit more friendly…once we get to know the neighbors better.

    Steve Gingold

    May 11, 2015 at 1:31 PM

    • There’s speculation that the tree developed this two-part growth habit in response to the predations of the moa, a giant bird that stood 9 feet tall.

      Your comment about a fence reminds me that in Mexico people have traditionally planted rows of upright cacti as de facto fences. Unlike lancewood, no gaps develop later down low (unless a cactus dies).

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 11, 2015 at 2:48 PM

  5. ¡Qué interesante! Gracias Steve.

  6. “…cool dinosaur plants ” made me laugh! I cannot remember seeing one in NZ, but I definitely saw one in Cornwall – such a weird plant.


    May 11, 2015 at 4:38 PM

    • Right, that description from plantlust.com is funny.

      I’m not surprised that you didn’t see a fierce lancewood in New Zealand; I never saw one in the wild, but only in a botanical preserve. I expect the lancewood you saw in Cornwall was in a botanical garden.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 11, 2015 at 5:45 PM

  7. Here is some more info about this tree:
    One of the theories about this curious change of appearance is that the young plant had to protect itself against browsing by the moa, the giant flightless bird that roamed New Zealand’s bush in prehistoric times. Once above moa height, it was out of danger and turns into a “regular” tree. A study of leaf colour development in P. crassifolius found that leaves of seedlings would blend with leaf litter, while juvenile leaf colouration would draw attention to their spines. A closely related Chatham Island species, which evolved in the absence of moa, did not display these changes.

    Raewyn's Photos

    May 12, 2015 at 1:58 AM

    • I’d read about the moa hypothesis but not the fact that a protected-from-moa species on Chatham Island developed conventionally. That’s good evidence in favor of the hypothesis.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 12, 2015 at 6:54 AM

  8. “plant geeks and adventurous gardeners”

    That’s a club I’m happy to be a member of. One of the greatest things about the internet is the ability to connect with like-minded geeks. 🙂


    May 12, 2015 at 4:52 AM

    • Isn’t that a great phrase? I’m a candidate for membership in the geek half of the club but I’ve never been a gardener. The Internet is great in its ability to connect people to other people and to connect people to information, although verifying that the information isn’t misinformation can be quite a chore.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 12, 2015 at 7:09 AM

  9. Although the change in form isn’t so striking, I still was reminded of the spineless prickly pear, which has hook-like leaves in the beginning of its growth, and then, due to age or drought, loses them and becomes the familiar smooth pad.

    Mine are in various stages of that transformation now. Here’s a photo that shows two very new pads emerging, the fleshy hooks (that also help with water storage) and, at the bottom of the largest new pad, some older hooks that are drying up and dropping off.

    There’s something else very unusual about this particular plant. Look how the largest new pad is growing out of the center of its host pad, rather than emerging from the top or side edge. I’ve never seen such a thing. It doesn’t look like the forms of fasciation you’ve shown, but on the other hand, it’s clearly a growth anomaly.

    Having had Godot and Godette, I guess I’m going to have to add GoFigure.


    May 12, 2015 at 6:19 PM

    • The hook-shaped leaves are familiar from the regular prickly pears, too. Because those new little leaves don’t last long, many people don’t realize that they’re the true leaves and sometimes mistakenly think that the joints are leaves rather than the flattened stems they actually are.

      I can’t recall if I’ve seen a new pad growing out of the flat part of an older pad rather than from the edge, as in your photo, but in January of 2013 I was surprised to come across a tuna fruit growing in that same way out of the center of a pad. As you say, it’s clearly an anomaly, but I have no idea how (un)common it is. Your GoFigure is as good a take on the situation as any.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 12, 2015 at 7:43 PM

  10. […] his Portraits of Wildflowers blog, Steven Schwartzman recently shared a quote describing a plant as one that “catches the eye […]

  11. Love lancewood!


    May 15, 2015 at 10:28 PM

    • I don’t think I’d even heard of it till I came upon the ones at Otari-Wilton’s Bush, but it certainly caught my attention.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 16, 2015 at 7:26 AM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: