The Blaze in the Green

Playing with toetoe

In Owls do Cry, Janet Frame wrote about the ‘gold tickle’ of toetoe around the town rubbish dump where her characters, four children, played. How many childhoods include that golden tickle or, as it always seemed to me, that golden blaze in the green, something mysteriously decorative like a lion’s mane, a horse’s plume, standing to attention in plain old flax.

As a boy I snapped the flowering stems off and waved them around. I walked holding one upright, imagining a knight’s pennant. I certainly wasn’t the first to play with toetoe. Centuries before me, Māori children used them to create kites or as spears in games. And they, like me and other children since, would have known to beware of the ‘cutty grass,’ the razor edged flax. Bowl into a bush of toetoe at your peril. You’ll find your legs and arms sliced like deli ham.

Yet for adults, there was value in that flax. Once the sharp edges were removed, it could be woven into baskets and mats. The stems for those flowering plumes had their uses too. Known as kākaho, they grace many marae and meeting houses as a part of tukutuku panels. And even the flowers themselves, had medicinal uses and would be spread on a wound like a bandage to staunch bleeding.

There are actually five types of toetoe, each with their slight differences, but each instantly recognisable as toetoe. Three are found in the North Island, one in the South and another in the sphagnum swamps and peat of the Chatham Islands. And then there are the foreign upstarts, species of pampas grass found here and often mistaken for toetoe, but which are, in fact, weeds. Despite these invaders, and the assault of rats, stoats and possums on the bush, toetoe itself is unthreatened, as common as mud. That same ‘cutty grass’ makes it unpalatable to predators, and long may it live on, a gold tickle in childhoods to come.