*Kuta [Proto Polynesian]


Eleocharis sphacelata (Cyperaceae)


Alternative name: paopao, apparently coined in Aotearoa.

From Proto Polynesian *Kuta Sedges belonging to the genus Eleocharis (Cyperaceae); through
Proto East Central Pacific: *Kuta Eleocharis articulata (Cyperaceae) "Soft sedge".

Flower-spike of kuta (Eleocharis sphacelata), emerging from the tip of the culm.

A basket woven from dried kuta culms; note the beautiful golden sheen, celebrated in the poem at the bottom of this page.

Tongan: Kuta, Kutu (Eleocharis dulcis, Cyperaceae); Kuta (mats woven from the culms of this sedge);
Samoan: 'utu'utu (Eleocharis dulcis, Cyperaceae);
Mangaian: Kuta (Eleocharis sp.?, Cyperaceae).

Kutakuta (Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani, Cyperaceae)
Note: See the other linked page (highlighted at the top of this page) for more information about the ancestral names, their modern descendents, and the plants they denote.

zzzThe kuta, Eleocharis sphacelata, shown growing in its natural environment in the photograph on the left, is one of the largest species of the genus Eleocharis, and is found also in Australia and New Guinea. It occupies in Aotearoa the ecological niche filled by waterlilies in other countries – it has an efficient oxygen-recycling system in its hollow leaves which enables it to thrive and relatively deep water – 75 cm to two metres plus. Kuta has many roles in the ecosystem, including helping keep waterways clean, providing a haven for small fish among its stems, and oxygen for aquatic insects, which bore tiny holes into the culms and tap the internal oxygen supply. It can survive drought by shutting down when the water level drops below the surface of the lake or river-margin where it is growing. The corms will sprout new shoots when the water returns.

The culms are up to two metres above the water, which means that they can be over three metres long from the base. The yellowish-green leaves become a beautiful golden brown, with hints of other colours when dry. The flowers are produced near the tips of the culms. The culms themselves are segmented with internal walls, technically known as septa, every centimetre or so, which gives a bamboo-like impression, hence the English name "bamboo sedge".

Kuta is traditionally used for weaving fine comfortable sleeping mats, wallcoverings, and clothing. Ocasionally it was bundled with raupo and used as a wall-insulation. It can also be used for weaving kete and other objects – but these are not as durable as those were woven from harakeke or kiekie.

According to a whakapapa of fibre plants supplied by by Mr H. Delamere of Te Whānau a Apanui to the Auckland Museum, kuta, kutakuta (Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani) and raupō (Typha orientalis) are all offspring of Te Kawha, a descendent of Tāne, by different wives. Botanically, kuta and kutakuta are quite closely related to each other, both members of the sedge family (Cyperaceae), and all three occupy analogous ecological niches. There is a very good discussion of this in the paper by Mieke Kapa (see below for the reference). Mieke Kapa's article also includes the poem by Toi Te Rito Maihi, which is beautifully evocative of the character of this plant, and is reproduced here alongside the photograph of the dried culms.

Unlike its near-namesake, the kutakuta (Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani), kuta is difficult to propagate, as I found out many years ago when the late Mabel Waititi, QSM, a noted weaver (and altogether a remarkable person) brought me some rhizomes to plant in my pond in Wellington. They did not thrive. I thought at the time it was probably because the water level was not deep enough, but apparently this is normally what happens when you try to propagate them by that means. It seems that the best way to grow kuta is from seed, floated over a potting mix until it starts to germinate. You then lower the water level, so the germinating seeds can anchor themselves on the wet potting mix beneath. Plants raised by this method should be pretty easy to transfer to their permanent positions.

In many dictionaries and reference works the botanical name for kuta will be given as Scirpus lacustris. This is a case of mistaken identity. Scirpus lacustris, now known as Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani, is actually a different kind of sedge, similar in appearance to the kuta, except that its culms do not have internal septa, and so there are no ring marks around them. One of its Maori names is kutakuta, meaning "like or resembling a kuta", and there is a separate page devoted to it on this website.


References and further reading: There is a highly informative article about the ethno-botany of kuta by Mieke Kapa in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol 119, no 2, June 2010, pp. 131-148. You can read the article on line on the Society's web site. Other useful information is contained in the Landcare Research information sheet on Kuta and Kāpūngāwhā (Kutakuta), and in Brian Sorrell and Chris Tanner, "Kuta: a special sort of spike-rush", Water and Atmosphere 7 (1), 1999, pp. 8-10; M. M. Kapa, & B.D. Clarkson, "Biological flora of New Zealand 11: Eleocharis sphacelata, kuta, paopao, bamboo spike sedge”. New Zealand Journal of Botany, 47(1), 2009, pp. 43-52; as well as in the pages linked to the credits for the photographs (below). The NZ Plant Conservation Network also has a page on Eleocharis sphacelata.

Photographs: The photograph of the flowering culm is from the Plantman website (New Zealand). The photograph of the kuta in its natural environment is from the University of Otago's page devoted to this species, and the other photographs are from Landcare Research (link above); the basket was woven by Riria Smith and the photograph taken by Geoff Walls, and the photograph of the stems hung to dry is by Sue Steele.

Kuta dried culms
Dried culms of kuta (Eleocharis sphacelata)


You entice kuta
as your dark green lengths
gleam in the sunlight
and toss the light amongst you –
your tubular stems air-filled
thrusting upwards through the water
from roots tenuously attached
to the lake bed.

And as you mature
you capture colour!
Creeping down from the sky-yearning tips
until you flash yellows and pinks
greens, browns
oranges and purples.
And after harvesting –
hung to dry in the darkness –
how do your satin-soft strands
transmute into gleaming coloured gold?

-- Toi Te Rito Maihi, Whakaaro Aroha, Kaikohe 2003

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