This plant name appears to be endemic to Aotearoa.


Discaria toumatou , "Matagouri, Wild Irishman" (Rhamnaceae); also, by analogy, applied to the adult form of Aciphylla squarrosa, "Taramea, Wild Spaniard" (Apiaceae).



This is a word created in Aotearoa; its precise origin is unknown. Taramea, the name of the spear-grass also sometimes called Tūmatakuru, contains the word root tara "thorn, spur" -- see the page for tōtara for more information about that.

Discaria toumatou - Tūmatakuru
(Arthurs Pass, NZ; Photo: (c) Mike Thorsen, NZPCN)
Dicscaria toumatou - Tūmatakuru; Limb with flowers
(Arthurs Pass, NZ; Photo: (c) Mike Thorsen, NZPCN)

Taramea, Aciphylla squarrosa & A. colensoi -- see below; A. squarrosa is also known as kurikuri.


This formidable shrub is one of ngā taero o Kupe "Kupe's obstacles", the four plants which obstructed Kupe's efforts to explore the new land which he had discovered. Besides the tūmatakuru these were the kareao (the supplejack liane, Ripogonum scandens), tatarāmoa (Rubus spp.), and ongaonga (Urtica ferox).

The tūmatakuru is found in a few localities along the west coast of the North Island; in the South Island it is rare on the West Coast, but was common in the drier parts of the South Island, although much has now been cleared for alternative land use. The English name "Matagouri" is a truncated adaptation of the Māori, and the alternative, "Wild Irishman" no doubt reflects the problems it posed for nineteenth-century English settlers trying to clear it from their newly acquired farmland. It grows up to 5 metres high, and has lots of tangled branches with ziz-zaggy twigs bearing fierce 2-inch long spines. The small, white flowers are borne abundantly in summer from the thorn axils on the branches and even on the trunk, singly or in clusters. Leaves are abundant when it is growing in shady places, but sparse in exposed locations. In the South Island high country it is deciduous in winter.

The tūmatakuru makes one appearance in Ngā Mōteatea. This is in a karakia for a tohi (baptismal) ceremony to prepare a boy for a career as a warrior, embedded in the well-known oriori (lullaby) chant "Pinepine te kura".

Nau mai, e tama, ki te taiao nei,
Ki whakangungua koe ki te kahikātoa,
Ki te tūmatakuru, ki te taraongaonga;
Ngā tairo rā nāhau, e Kupe,
I waiho i te ao nei.

Welcome, O son, welcome to this world of life,
You are to be ritually strengthened with the kahikātoa,
With the tūmatakuru and the taraongaonga;
These were the obstructions that you, O Kupe,
Bequeathed unto this world.
[NM 215: 7-11]

There is another taero mentioned in connection with Kupe in the chant, the kahikātoa (mānuka), a tough-wooded small tree from which spears and other weapons were fashioned, and which can form dense thickets in suitable environments.

Tūmatakuru in Te Paipera Tapu

In Biblical translations, tūmatakuru is often paired with other prickly plants, like ongaonga (nettles) and taramoa (briers); the use of these plant names is symbolic, and in the Hebrew texts also their counterparts seem often to be interchangeable. Many of these plants are illustrated and briefly described on the page for taramoa: the Spiny Zilla (Zilla spinosa), Thorny Burnett (Sarcopterium spinosum), Christ Thorn (Ziziphus spina-christi), Syrian Thistle (Notobasis syriaca), Grey Nightshade (Solanum incanum) and a Golden Thistle (Scolymus hispanicus). Some of these, like the Christ Thorn and the Spiny Zilla, may also constitute formidable barriers, on a par with the Tūmatakuru.

Three other candidates are the thistles Silybum marianum (pictured above, left), Scolymus maculatus (right) and Echinops viscosus (in the gallery). These are certainly prickly plants but are rather benign compared with the tūmatakuru! Scolymus maculatus, a "Golden Thistle" is a spiny herbaceous plant, perennial in a favourable environment, growing up to 1½ m high, and containing a milky latex. It has yellow daisy-like flowers. The "Holy thistle" or "Mary's thistle", Silybum marinarum, is now a cosmopolitan plant, probably as common in Aotearoa as in the Middle East. This species is also an annual or biennialplant of the family Asteraceae. This fairly typical thistle has red to purple flowers and shiny pale green leaves with white veins. It can grow up to 3 metres tall, and, despite its common name, is regarded as an invasive weed in most of the places where it has settled. Echinops viscosus, the "Globe thistle", is one of those nuisance plants which grows up among the branches of small shrubs. It has thorny stems which produce globular, lilac flowers folowed by small, spiny fruit. Any of the passages below, or the others mentioning tūmatakuru on the pages for ongaonga and taramoa may have featured or brought to mind one of these plants, or the others mentioned above, in the original text. In all, there are 20 references to tūmatakuru in Te Paipera Tapu, 9 in the Book of Isaiah, and the others scattered through the Old and New Testaments. The English counterparts to tūmatakuru in these examples range from briers to thorns and thistles. The parallel Samoan texts use general expressions: mea talatala (spiny things), lā'au talatala (spiny plants), lā'au tuitui (barbed plants) and mea matuitui (sharp-pointed things).

Kaiwhakariterite (Judges) 8:16 PT: Nā ka mau ia ki ngā kaumātua o te pā, ki nga tatarāmoa hoki o te koraha, ki nga tūmatakuru, a whakaakona ana ki ēna ngā tāngata o Hukota.
KJV And he took the elders of the city, and thorns of the wilderness and briers, and with them he taught the men of Succoth.
RSV: And he took the elders of the city and he took thorns of the wilderness and briers and with them taught the men of Succoth.
TP: ‘Ona ‘ave ai lea e ia o toeaina o le ‘a‘ai, ma la‘au tuitui mai le vao ma mea talatala, ‘ua ia a‘oa‘iina ai tagata o Sukota.

Hohea (Hosea):10:8 PT: .... ka puta ake te tatarāmoa me te tūmatakuru ki runga ki ā rātou aata, ā ka mea rātou ki ngā maunga, Taupokina mātou; ki nga pukepuke, E hinga ki runga ki a mātou.
KJV: .... the thorn and the thistle shall come up on their altars; and they shall say to the mountains, Cover us; and to the hills, Fall on us.
RSV: .... Thorn and thistle shall grow up on their altars; and they shall say to the mountains, Cover us, and to the hills, Fall upon us. 
TP: .... e tutupu a‘e le la‘au tuitui ma le la‘au talatala i o latou fatafaitaulaga; latou te fai atu fo‘i i mauga, ‘Inā tanu mai ia ‘iā te i matou. E fa‘apea fo‘i i mea maupu‘epu‘e, ‘Inā mafuli mai ia i luga ‘iā te i matou.

Ihaia (Isaiah) 7:23-25 PT: Ā i taua rā, ko ngā wāhi katoa i reira nei ngā waina kotahi mano, ko te utu kotahi mano hiriwa, ka waiho ērā mō ngā tatarāmoa, mō ngā tūmatakuru.
KJV: And it shall come to pass in that day, that every place shall be, where there were a thousand vines at a thousand silverlings, it shall even be for briers and thorns.
RSV: In that day every place where there used to be a thousand vines, worth a thousand shekels of silver, will become briers and thorns
TP: O lea aso fo‘i e i ai o la‘au talatala ma la‘au tuitui i mea uma sa i ai vine e afe, e fa‘atatauina i tupe e afe.

Ehekiera (Ezekiel) 2:6 PT: Nā ko koe, e te tama a te tangata, kaua e wehi i a rātou, kaua e wehi i ā rātou kupu, ahakoa he tatarāmoa, he tūmatakuru i tōu taha, ā e noho ana koe i roto i ngā kōpiona ....
KJV: And thou, son of man, be not afraid of them, neither be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns be with thee, and thou dost dwell among scorpions ....
RSV: And you, son of man, be not afraid of them, nor be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns are with you and you sit upon scorpions ....
TP: O oe na fo‘i, le atali‘i o le tagata, ‘aua ‘e te fefe ‘iā te i latou, ‘aua fo‘i ‘e te fefe ‘iā latou ‘upu, e ui ‘ina ‘ua ‘outou i ai ma ē o fouvale ma mea matuitui ma ‘outou nonofo ma akarava ....

The Samoan translation in the passage from Ezekiel is interesting in that it mentions only one thorny plant, as does the Jerusalem Bible ("... do not be afraid when they say "There are thorns all round you and scorpions under you"). Note also the use of kōpiona for "scorpion" (from Greek through English) in the Māori text, in contrast with akarava, derived from Hebrew akrabbim, in the Samoan text.

Matiu (Matthew) 7:16 PT: Mā ō rātou hua ka mōhiotia ai rātou e koutou. E whakiia rānei te karepe i runga i te tatarāmoa, te piki ranei i te tūmatakuru?
KJV: Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
RSV: You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?
TP: Tou te iloa i latou i o latou fua. Pe tau mai ‘ea e tagata se fuifui vine mai le la‘au tuitui, po o mati mai le la‘au talatala?


Another spiny plant is also sometimes called tūmatakuru. This is the taramea, Aciphylla squarrosa (Apiaceae), also known in English as "Spaniard" or "Wild Spaniard", names, like "Wild Irishman", originating in an era not known for political correctness or a respect for ethnic sensitivities. It was a common observation of the nineteenth-century foragers in the high country that those who escaped the talons of the Wild Irishman would probably be wounded by the spears of the Spaniard.It is a plant especially of montaine and alpine areas, but can be found in rocky and sandy places ranging from the coast to mountain areas in the central and southern parts of the North Island, and the northern tip of the South Island. It grows in large tussocks about a metre high, with sharply-pointed leaf segments and spiny inflorescences (as shown in the detail on the left) and fruits.

A closely related species, Aciphylla colensoi (illustrated on the right), also called taramea, was much esteemed by Māori as a source of valuable perfume. It is found in montane areas (900-1500 m above sea level) from the Central North Island to mid-Canterbuty. This plant exudes a gum which was mixed with the fronds of mokimoki (Doodia media), the fragrant resin of tawhiwhi (Pittosporum tenuifolium), oil of the miro (Pectinopitys ferruginea) and flowers of pātōtara (Leupogon and Gaultheria spp), and strained through a seive made of toetoe (Austroderia splendens). The resulting perfume was kept in carved boxes near the sleeping mats of important people, and stored in sachets worn by women.

This fragrance, the hinu taramea, is alluded to in three mōteatea. The first mention is in an oreore (jeering song), where the precious cargo of scented oil may be a sarcastic contrast to the meagre food supplies allocated to the addressee. The emerging fronds (pikopiko) of the mauku (Asplenium bulbiferum) would supply a few greens, the toetoe (a general name for sedges and large grasses) little if any sustenance.

He aha te kai mō roto i tō puke?
He mauku, he toetoe, to te mea rā e pae noa.
Tikina koia ki te whare o Te Rohu,
Hei hōmai te kati o taramea
Hei whakakakara mō tō moenga e hine

What food is there to load on your ship?
Only the mauku and toetoe which lies everywhere.
Fetch it from the house of Te Rohu,
Who will give a casket of taramea
To perfume your couch, O maiden!
[NM 210,
He Pātere, by Te Hika-Puhi (Tapuika, Te Arawa), 15-19]

The oil itself is the subject of the second reference, in a lament by the author for his son, Te Hokio, who died from burns received in an accident while eeling by torchlight. The "waters of Tāne" are waters infused with healing herbs from the domain of Tāne Māhuta, god of the forest.

Me tāuhi koe ki te wai taramea,
Me kaukau koe ki te wai o Tane,
He wai puna tea, nā ī.

Let (me) now sprinkle over you the scented taramea,
Let (me) bathe you in the waters of Tane',
In the clear spring waters yonder, na i.
[NM 330
He Waiata Tangi, by Tutemahurangi (Ngati Haua), 33-35.

In this last quotation, taramea is used metaphorically to denote something precious, like the kōkōwai (red ochre) used to enhance the appearance of the finest canoes. The place names refer to elevated areas on Mokoia Island, in Lake Rotorua, and the headland on the shore opposite.

Ka mōai koa Taupiri, a Te Rewarewa
E tūtei ana rā te kauika taramea
I te mātārae, i waho o Muruika, ē,ī.

Quite bare is Taupiri, also Te Rewarewa
And trimmed, too, are the moored red-ochred canoes
Off the headland, outside of Muruika, e i.
[NM 128
He Tangi mō Te Matapihi-o-Rehua, by Te Hinu (Te Arawa), 2-4.

Taramea gum

William Colenso had a very interesting account of the way the chief component of the taramea scent was collected in the fragrances section of his "Reminiscences of the Ancient Maoris" (Transactions of the NZ Institute, Vol. XXIV, 1892, pp.458-9), which is worth reproducing here.

One of the Pittosporum trees, tawhiri (P. tenuifolium) also yielded a fragrant gum; but the choicest and rarest was obtained from the peculiar plant taramea (Aciphylla colensoi), which inhabits the alpine zone, and which I have only met with near the summits of the Ruahine Mountain-range, where it is very common and very troublesome to the traveller that way. The gum of this plant was only collected through much labour, toil and difficulty, accompanied, too, with certain ceremonial (taboo) observances. An old tohunga (skilled man, and priest) once informed me that the taramea gum could only be got by very young women --virgins; and by them only after certain prayers, charms, &.c., duly said by the tohunga.
There is a sweet little nursery song of endearment, expressive of much love, containing the names of all four of their perfumes, which I have not unfrequently heard affectionately and soothingly sung by a Maori mother to her child while nursing and fondling it: --
Taku hei piripiri,
Taku hei mokimoki,
Taku hei tawhiri,
Taku kati-taramea.
My little neck-satchel of sweet-scented moss,
My little neck-satchel of fragrant fern,
My little neck-satchel of odiferous gum
Mt sweet-smelling neck-locket of sharp-pointed taramea.
Here I may observe that to the last one of the four the word kati is prefixed: this word -- meaning, to sting, to bite, to puncture, to wound sharply and painfully -- is added to indicate the excessive sharpness of the numerous leaves and leaflets of the taramea plant (hence judiciously generically named by its early discoverer, Forster, Aciphylla = needle-pointed leaf), and the consequent pains, with consequent loss of blood, attending to the collecting of its prized gum, thus enhancing the value.

This natural and agreeable little stanza, one of the olden time, has proved so generally taking to the Maori people that it has passed into a proverbial saying, and is often used, hummed, to express delight and satisfaction -- pleasurable feelings. ....

It may be noted, however, that the taramea was discovered and named long before the Forsters arrived on Captain Cook's second expedition. Its Māori discoverers had similar reactions to their later botanist counterparts, nonetheless: its Māori name could be interpreted as "red spines", stained perhaps with the blood of those who first encountered it unawares.


References and further reading: The NZ Plant Conservation Network has excellently illustrated information sheets on the tūmatakuru and the taramea, both Aciphylla squarrosa and A. colensoi. See also the general works on NZ trees and plants in the bibliography. The Biblical plants are further described in Michael Zohary's Plants of the Bible (Cambridge University Press, 1982), and in resources available through Wikipedia.

Photographs: As usual, we are indebted to NZPCN members for contributing many of the photographs illustrating this page. We are also grateful to the contributors to the Wikipedia databases for those of the Biblical plants. The photographs in the gallery are acknowledged individually in the captions. The photographs in the text are by "Fir0002/Flagstaffotos" (Silybum marinarum); Iorsh (Scolymus maculatus); (c) Jeremy Rolfe, NZPCN (taramea inflorescence); and the late John Sawyer, (c) NZPCN (Aciphylla colensoi, on Mt Holdsworth in the Tararua Ranges).

Discaria toumatou - Tūmatakuru; inflorescence
(Quail Island, NZ; Photo: (c) John Barkla, NZPCN)
Discaria toumatou - Tūmatakuru; immature fruit
(Mt Aspiring, NZ; Photo: John Sawyer, (c) NZPCN)
Discaria toumatou - Tūmatakuru; inflorescence & leaves
(Lake Aviemore, NZ; Photo: (c) Mike Thorsen, NZPCN)
Discaria toumatou - Tūmatakuru; branch with minimal foliage
(Matukituki, Mt Aspiring, NZ; Photo: John Sawyer, (c) NZPCN)
Aciphylla squarrosa var squarrosa - Taramea
(Cape Turakirae, Wellington.)
Photo: (c) Peter de Lange, NZPCN
Echonops spinosissimus - "Globe Thistle"
(Samos, Greece.) Photo: KPFC, WikiMedia.
E whakiia rānei ... te piki ... i te tūmatakuru?

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