In former times, Pīngao would have crowded the shore of every sandy beach from Northland to Stewart Island. The curly golden leaves were highly admired as a weaving material, and were used to make hats, bags, mats, headbands, belts and raincapes. South Island Māori were even known to make body armour with the leaves that was worn into battle. Pīngao was such an important part of the lives of coastal Māori that it is said that the spirits of the dead carried the plant along the pathway to the underworld. On the long journey back to Hawaiki they would drop Pīngao to mark their passage.
A Ngāi Tahu legend explains that Pīngao was created by the gods during a terrible battle. Tangaroa – lord of the ocean – was waging a violent war against his brother Tāne – lord of the forest. Tāne wished to end the war, so he plucked off his golden eyebrows and gave them to Tangaroa as a peace offering. But Tangaroa could not find it in his heart to forgive his brother, and cast the eyebrows back on the shore. There they remain to this day as Pīngao, forever marking the boundary between land and sea.
In another tale, Pīngao began life as a seaweed on the shore of the ocean. From her home she spied the slender stalks of the handsome Toetoe. Driven mad with love she left the ocean and crawled across the hot sand to meet the tall stranger. However when she arrived, she found Toetoe to be a terrible narcissist, who cared nothing for her and was only in love with himself. Stranded on the dry, sandy dunes, she called out to Tangaroa to help, but all he could do to ease her suffering was shower her with sea spray.
Pīngao lives a fluid existence, and thrives in coastal environments where dunes are constantly shifting and moving over time. However, after the arrival of Europeans, coastal areas were extensively burned and planted with marram grass, tree lupins and pine trees. These species stabilize the sand dunes in place and completely smother and outcompete Pīngao. Today, Pīngao has experienced a massive decline and only a few remnant populations remain scattered around the coast. However the future of Pīngao is far from over, and a range of programmes are underway to protect Pīngao and replant sand dunes throughout the country.
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