*Piri-Piri [Proto Central Eastern Polynesian ~ Piripiri [Māori]
A generic name for plants which have burrs or sticky seeds.
From PROTO POLYNESIAN *pili, "Adhere".

Proto Central Eastern Polynesian: *Piripiri
Hawaiian: Pilipili (A name applied to two introduced weeds Desmodium sandwicense, "Spanish clover", Fabaceae, and Drymaria cordata Caryophyllaceae; in unreduplicated form, the possibly native "Pili grass" Heteropogon contortus, Poaceae -- see text below!)
Tahitian: Piripiri (Cenchrus echinatus "Sand burr", Poaceae; Urena lobata "Hibiscus burr" Malvaceae)
Tuamotuan: Piripiri (A generic name for plants with sticky burrs or seeds )
Rarotongan: Piripiri (Cenchrus echinatus "Sand burr", Poaceae)
Maori: Piripiri (A generic name applied to certain plants with burrs, scented ferns, and epiphytic plants - details below.)

Pili Grass
Heteropogon contortus - Pili Grass - Kaho'olawe, Hawai'i
(Photo: (c) Forest & Kim Starr, Starr Environmetal)
Acaena anserinifolia - Piripiri
(Photo: (c) Mike Thorsen, NZPCN)

In many Eastern Polynesian languages some variant of "piripiri" is a term for a plant with leaves or, especially, burrs which cling to passers by, but also extended to other modes of clinging. In Hawai'i the non-reduplicated form is applied to the "pili grass", Heteropogon contortus, pictured above, which grows naturally on rocky places near the ocean. The species is widely distributed in the tropics, and is either native to Hawai'i or introduced by the first Polynesian settlers. It is a rather unruly grass with barbed flower-spikes which cling to passers by. The Hawaiian terms pipili and pilipili are applied to an introduced wild herb, Drymaria cordata, a prostrate plant clinging closely to the ground. It is widely distributed through the tropics, and grows in shady places on most Hawaiian islands. Another weed, the pilipili 'ula or "Spanish clover", Desmodium sandwicense (or D. incanum), a native of South America, is found in a variety of habitats throughout Hawaii and in some Pacific Islands. The seed pods are covered with hooked hairs.

In Tahiti and Rarotonga the name piripiri is applied especially to Cenchus echinatus (illustration inset above, right), an invasive grass also native to tropical America, and now widespread throughout the Pacific. Its sharp-spined burrs adhere readily to clothing and also animal fur. Another weed with spiny fruit is the "hibiscus burr", Urena lobata, is thought to be native to tropical Asia, and was introduced to Micronesia and Western Polynesia by Austronesian voyages. It did not spread further east, however, until the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. It is a weed of roadsides and pastures, and regarded as a serious pest in Fiji. It is known as piripiri in Tahiti and Atiu (Cook Islands).

In Aotearoa the term is both the name of a particular plant, and a classification. In its general sense, piripiri can signify a plant that clings to people by means of its fragrance, with hooks or barbs, which clings to the ground, or which clings to trees or rocks.

The fern Doodia mollis, mokimoki, illustrated on the left, is in the first category. The slender, aromatic fronds of this fern were used for scenting, in conjunction with other plants and plant-based products (e.g. the leaves of the filmy fern, Hymenophyllum sanguinolentum, and the gum of the tāwhiri, Pittosporum tenuifolium), or alone, for example boiled in weka oil. This is a fern of the forest floor, preferring damp, shady locations. It is confined naturally to the northern half of the north island, and its hairy, tapering fronds reach up to about a foot (30 cm) in height. It is mentioned in a chant in the story of Mataora and Niwareka and how the art of tā moko, tatooing, was brought to the world: "Mokimoki te kakara kia urua, i e - Mokimoki is the fragrance that should be incorporated". It is also mentioned in two of the chants in Ngā Mōteatea:

Waiho māku e tangi ake ki te hau moana
Hai mau atu i tō kakara:
He mokomoki nō tō kāinga, E koro, ē ī.

I am left to morn with the sea breeze,
Which blows hither with your fragrance;
Like unto the scented mokimoki from your house,
O grandsire, alas.

[He tangi mō Te Rangi-tu-Motomoto (Wairarapa) NM 206, lines 4-7.]

And in a more joyous context, in this Waiata ātahu ("song of a love charm"):

Au nei he motu puhi rākau
Whākina te tau kia rangona
Mokimoki te kakara kia iria, ē

I am like unto a shady tree grove,
Let the cherished one now be named aloud,
And may the perfumed spell linger on.

[He Waiata Ātahu (Tuhoe), NM 246, lines 14-16.]

The well-known weeds known specifically as piripiri (or "biddybid", the English adaptation of the name), Acaena anserinifolia (pictured in the gallery), A. novae-zelandiae (shown on the left) and their relatives, are unsurpassed in the capacity of their burrs to adhere to clothing, animal fur, and anything else with which they come in contact. There are 18 distinct species native to Aotearoa in this genus, mostly found mainly in high country tussock land. A. anserinifolia and A. novae-zealandiae however are found in open situations and pasture land throughout the country. A. novae-zelandiae has the distinction of being "one of the very rare cases where a New Zealand weed has been successfully exported and become established in other countries" (Roy et al., Common Weeds of New Zealand, p. 260). It is widespread in Britain, Ireland and parts of California, thought to have been carried to its new locations in shipments of wool.

The creepers Gonocarpus incanus (pictured in the gallery) and G. micranthus (right) are small-leaved herbs that come under the ground-hugging dimension of the category piripiri.G. micranthus has stems up to about 10 cm tall, which root at the nodes as it creeps along the ground. It has small reddish flowers and tiny dark red 8-ribbed fruit. It prefers to grow in boggy and peaty places. It is native to New Zealand, and found throughout the country. This species is found also in Australia, India, Malaya, Japan, and China. G. incanus has much longer stems, up to 40 cm tall, although they can also spread prostrate along the ground. It is found in the North Island and northern parts of the South Island, on dry, hard ground.

The category "piripiri" also includes a tiny orchid, Bulbophyllum pygmaeum, which perches on trees, and occasionally on rocks. It is found high up in trees, but also sometimes forms large mats in favourable locations closer to the ground. Its small pseudo-bulbs are about the size of a pea and covered with minute hairs, each accompanied by a single leaf (as shown in the greatly enlarged image on the left), with a tiny white flower. This species is endemic to New Zealand, and is found naturally in forest in coastal to montane areas from Stewart Island to the Three Kings, but more commonly in the North. The other New Zealand species of Bulbophyllum, B. tuberculatum, would also fit the category of "piripiri". This orchid appears to be rather uncommon, possibly because it simply has not been noticed as often; its leaves are much larger than those of B. pygmaeum (up to 5 cm long), and it has smooth pseudobulbs which often bear more than one flower. Its colonies are more compact than the spread-out clusters of B. pygmaeum. It has a similar distribution to B. pygmaeum, except that its range does not extend beyond the lowlands, and it is always associated with particular species of grey lichen.

Pittosporum cornifolium, tāwhirikaro, is an epyphytic shrub, which grows to about 2 metres high perched on trees or rocks. It has bright green leaves and small red flowers; the interior of its fruit capsules is bright orange. It is found in lowland forests in the upper half of the North Island.

Another group of plants also may come under the heading piripiri. These are the varieties of the liverwort species Chiloscyphus novae-zeelandiae (Lopohocoleaceae), tiny plants found in cushions clinging to rocks or wood in forest stream beds. The image on the right shows a thumbnail-sized section of a cushion of these plants. Other similar liverworts may also go by this name.

This completes the coverage of New Zealand plants most often included in the category piripiri. Like any group, its membership could be either widened or narrowed as time goes on; nonetheless, the various species of Acaena are probably assured of permanent membership!


Urena lobata - Piripiri (Tahiti)
Hanalei, Kawai, Hawai'i (Photo: (c) Forest & Kim Starr)
Pittosporum cornifolium - Tāwhirikaro; Piripiri
Totara North, NZ (Photo: (c) Bill Campbell, NZPCN)
Drymaria cordata - Pilipili (Hawai'i)
Hilo, Hawaii (Photo: (c) Kim & Forest Starr, Starr Environmental)
Desmodium incanum - Pilipili 'ula (Hawai'i)
Ulupalakua, Maui, Hawai'l (Photo: (c) K & F Starr)
Gonocarpus incanus - Piripiri
(Photo: (c) Peter de Lange, NZPCN)
Bulbophyllum pygmaeum - Piripiri
(Photo: (c) Mike Thorsen, NZPCN)
Further information : The NZ Plant Conservation Network and NZ Flora web sites have illustrated information sheets on all the NZ species mentioned except the liverworts of the genus Chiloscyphus. There is however information about these liverworts on the Auckland University's New Zealand Plants web site (we tried putting a link to this excellent web site but access is blocked by the University system; you can get access however through queries via Google). See also Laing and Blackwell's Plants of New Zealand, Murdoch Riley's Herbal, Roy et al. Common Weeds of New Zealand and other works on NZ plants listed in the Bibliography; for the tropical plants, see especially W. Arthur Whistler's Wayside Plants of the Islands. The story of Mataora and Niwareka, including the full text of karakia referring to the mokomoki, will be found in Te Ao Hou No. 50 (March 1965) , pp. 17-19.
Photographs: The inset photographs are, in order, (c) by Forest and Kim Starr (Cenchus echinatus, Launiupoko, Maui, Hawai'i); and by Jeremy Rolfe, NZPCN (Doodia mollis, Aoraki Forest Park, NZ; Acaena novae-zelandiae, Boulder Hill, Lower Hutt, NZ; Gonocarpus micranthus, Tararua Forest Park, NZ; and Bulbophyllum pygmaeum, Silverstream Scenic Reserve, NZ). The small inset showing the liverwort Chiloscyphus novae-zeelandiae var meridionalis is a detail from a photograph by Dr Larry Jensen on the University of Auckland School of Biological Sciences website. The photographs in the gallery are acknowledged in the captions; as usual, we are deeply indebted to Kim and Forest Starr for the photos of plants growing in Hawai'i, and members of the NZ Plant Conservation Network for those from Aotearoa.

Te Mära Reo, c/o Benton Family Trust, "Tumanako", RD 1, Taupiri, Waikato 3791, Aotearoa / New Zealand. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License