Landcare Research - Manaaki Whenua

Landcare-Research -Manaaki Whenua


Māori namestoetoe, toetoe-kākaho, toetoe-mokoro, toetoe-rākau. The flower stem is kākaho
Other common namestoetoe (commonly misspelt as toitoi), plumed tussock, feathery grass, cutty grass (commonly used by children)
Scientific nameAustroderia spp., Austroderia splendens, A. fulvida, A. richardii, A. toetoe, A. turbaria (Chatham Island)
FamilyPoaceae (grass family)

The major traditional use for toetoe was to line the inner walls, roofs, and partitions of houses and other buildings with the stems (culms) called kākaho, producing a neat finish. Long straight, light-coloured kākaho of an even width were preferred and much time was spent collecting these. Elsdon Best, writing of the Urewera, said the best kākaho for house-lining came from a toetoe variety known there as kākaho-matariki (possibly A. toetoe or A. fulvida). The toetoe with larger but more crooked culms was called kākaho-puha (possibly A. splendens). The hollow culms were also used as shafts for hunting arrows, straws and pipes, spears in games, and frames for kites.

Kākaho are still used in tukutuku panels, the ornamental lattice-work put around the walls of meeting houses. The vertical stakes are traditionally made of kākaho culms, with horizontal rods of bracken stalks or strips of tōtara, and a pattern woven among them of harakeke, kiekie or pīngao.

Leaves were sometimes used for weaving mats and baskets, after first removing the sharp leaf margins.


The giant tussock grasses of toetoe, sporting numerous large creamy flower plumes on tall stems, are an iconic part of the New Zealand landscape. Most New Zealanders would be familiar with toetoe, perhaps having played with the flowering stems as a child, but might be surprised to learn that toetoe is actually five discrete, but similar looking, species each with marked differences in distribution.

All are very large stout tussocks (clump grasses) from 1.5 to 3 m tall, with coarse, green, flat, narrow (2−5 cm wide), sharp-edged leaves from 1 to 3 m long, and upright flowering stems (culms) 2.5−6 m tall. The usually one-sided flower/seed head is often drooping, at least at the tip. It has many fine hanging branches containing numerous tiny flower clusters encased in soft, hairy scales. These scales impart the distinctive thick, soft, plume-like character of the flowering heads.


The largest toetoe, A. splendens, is a species of lowland sand dunes, cliffs and rocky places and is confined to Northland, Bay of Plenty and Waikato.

Austroderia toetoe is restricted to swamps and wet ground in the North Island south of Tauranga.

Wet places, stream, lake and forest margins, and disturbed hillsides, from sea level to the subalpine zone are the habitats for A. fulvida (North Island) and A. richardii (South Island).

The fifth species of toetoe (A. turbaria) grows in sphagnum swamps and on peat on the Chatham Islands.


Telling the difference between pampas, toetoe and hunangāmoho

The pampas grasses, two introduced Austroderia species from South America, are similar in appearance to toetoe, but are serious weeds in northern parts of the country.

Flowering timeSpring, early summer (though retains flower heads)Late January to late May
Flower headDroopingErect, dense
Plume colourWhite/creamOne species pink/purplish, drying to dirty brown, white
LeafWon’t break when tugged firmlyBreaks
Leaf bladeProminent veins either side of midribOnly fine, indistinct veins either side of midrib
MidribContinues into leaf baseDoes not continue into leaf base
Leaf baseWhite, waxyNot waxy
Base of plantDead leaves don’t form spiralOld brown tightly curled, fractured leaf debris – like wood chips
 Foliage details showing the coarse midrib and secondary veins of toetoe. Image - Peter SweetappleFoliage details showing the fine secondary veins of pampas grass. Image - Peter Sweetapple
 Foliage details showing the coarse midrib and secondary veins of toetoe. Image - Peter SweetappleFoliage details showing the fine secondary veins of pampas grass. Image - Peter Sweetapple

One large native grass, the snow tussock or hunangāmoho, Chionochloa conspicua, can also be confused with toetoe.

Stature> 1 m≤ 1 m
Leaf shoot basesRound in cross sectionFlattened in cross section
Flower headsThick plumesSmaller, open flower heads
Leaf sheathsWhite, waxy, hairlessDark brown, hairy


All species of toetoe in mainland New Zealand are abundant and not threatened, and are of low palatability to introduced herbivores. They are generally hardy, being resilient to wind, salt spray, water logging, and moderate drought. However, the Chatham Island toetoe is listed as nationally critical, with just a few hundred plants known from 10 populations. It is threatened by grazing by farm stock, fungal disease, floods, fire, and competition from introduced plants.


All toetoe species are easily grown from fresh seed, and division of established plants. Seed sown on the soil surface, or barely covered with a seedling mix, will rapidly germinate if kept moist. They will grow well in full or partial sun, in dry or wet soil.

Prepared by Sue Scheele and Peter Sweetapple