Volume 105 1996 > Volume 105, No. 3 > Rengarenga lilies and Maori occupation at Matakitaki-a-Kupe (Cape Palliser): An ethnobotanical study, by Graham F. Harris and Haami Te Whaiti, p 271-286
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The rengarenga or rock lily Arthropodium cirratum is classified by the Department of Conservation as vulnerable in the Wellington Conservancy and until February 1994 its database (unpublished data) did not record the plant as occurring on the South Wairarapa coast.

While undertaking a botanical survey of the Cape Palliser area, the authors located large colonies of rengarenga plants growing over a small isolated area east of the Cape Palliser lighthouse.

A study of archaeological records shows that these plant colonies are in an area that had a high number of ancient Maori habitation sites and that extensive horticultural crop production was undertaken by Maori in this area. It is well documented that rengarenga was cultivated by Maori as a source of food and that the plant had medicinal uses and was of spiritual significance (see Colenso 1868, 1880, 1891; Riley 1994; Tregear 1926; White 1883).

This ethnobotanical 1 study explores the possibility that these colonies of rengarenga remain from plants either established and cultivated by Maori or from wild plants managed by Maori to perpetuate a valuable resource.


Rengarenga or māikaika, Arthropodium cirratum, is a lily which colonises rocky coastal areas from the North Cape to a southern limit from Kaikoura to Greymouth.

The plant forms extensive colonies and in summer bears panicles of six-petalled white flowers on 30 cm stalks. The flowers have purple and yellow stamens which are curled at the ends and give rise to the specific name cirratum ‘curled’. The leaves are 30-60 cm long and 3-10 cm wide and the plant has a system of thick fleshy rhizomes which are up to 3 cm in diameter.

Aspects of regional variation have been considered by Simpson and De Lange (1992:104), who noted that distinct regional provenances of Arthropodium cirratum exist and that the plant varies widely according to how it has adapted to prevailing climatic and other environmental condi- - 272 tions, while Moore and Edgar (1970:20) reported that the plant shows a great range in size of all parts, even amongst plants of different provenances growing side by side.

Rengarenga is extensively grown in gardens and a number of horticultural selections have been made such as Arthropodium cirratum ‘Parnell’, which have leaves and flowers that are larger than the typical species.

Fig. 1. Flowers of Arthropodium cirratum.
Fig. 2. Distribution.

Information about the importance of rengarenga as a food source for Maori and its cultural and spiritual significance was recorded by William Colenso, who published much of the early ethnobotanical information on New Zealand. Colenso also recorded information about the medicinal properties of the plant and how it was used by Maori for that purpose.


Rengarenga is recorded by Tregear (1926:494) as being one of the five sacred mauri or talismans, those things possessed of the soul of the Maori people, and it is referred to in whakatauāki ‘proverbs’ (Hoturoa Kerr personal communication).

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It is represented in several kōwhaiwhai patterns which decorated the rafters of wharenui ‘meeting houses’ (Colenso 1891:460; D. Simmons personal communication).


Colenso (1880:30) recorded that rengarenga was one of the few native plants cultivated by Maori for food. He wrote:

The thick fleshy roots of the New Zealand lily, rengarenga (Arthropodium cirrhatum) were also formerly eaten, cooked in the earth oven. This plant grows to a very large size in suitable soil, and when cultivated in gardens. From this circumstance, and from having not unfrequently noticed it about old deserted residences and cultivations, I am inclined to believe that it was also cultivated.

The authors observed that rengarenga plants which were grown in cultivated soil produced much larger rhizomes than those growing naturally on rocky outcrops and shallow coastal soils.


Maori were highly skilled in using herbs in conjunction with spiritual healing (Riley 1994:9). Rengarenga was one of the plants used for the treatment of boils and abscesses, which were among the main surgical complaints that afflicted Maori in pre-European times and into the early 20th century (Riley 1994:26-7). Colenso (1868:267) recorded that the roots of the rengarenga were roasted and beaten to a pulp and applied warm to unbroken tumours or abscesses, while White (1883) recorded that the bottom or lower end of the leaves is beaten into a pulp as a poultice to cure ulcers or longstanding sores and to allay swelling of joints or limbs.


Gabites (1993:91) describes rengarenga as regionally (Wellington) threatened and the Department of Conservation's Conservation Management Strategy 1994-2003 for the Wellington Conservancy classifies it as vulnerable on the mainland (“facing high probability of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future”), although rengarenga is not cited by Given (1981) in Rare and Endangered Plants of New Zealand. Unpublished data from the Department of Conservation (Sawyer n.d.) record small endangered occurrences of rengarenga at Kapiti and Mana islands and some mainland sites around the western Wellington coast. The most easterly recorded sites in the Wellington region are at Cape Turakirae and the Rimutaka coast.

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Its present distribution in the Marlborough Sounds, on steep rock faces of headlands and islands where browsing animals cannot reach its colonies, attests to its adaptation to the Cook Strait rocky coast habitat. 2

S. Scheele (personal communication) reported that the only recorded occurrence of rengarenga further to the north east from Palliser Bay is a small wild population at Kairakau beach in Hawkes Bay. These plants are growing on a steep cliff by a waterfall and are inaccessible to stock. Karaka trees are growing in the vicinity. Scheele noted that the next closest known plants to those at Kairakau beach occur at Anauru Bay some 350 km to the north of the present study site.


In February 1994, the authors found plants of rengarenga growing 1.5 km east of Cape Palliser lighthouse on the escarpment of a stream eroded fan behind a grove of karaka trees (colony b -fig. 5.). Further groups of plants were found growing on the steep north facing stream banks of the Te Roro stream (colony a).

Fig. 3. Location of rengarenga colonies
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In December of that year, seven more colonies were discovered within 800 metres east of the first site (colonies c-i). These plants were growing on steep slopes some 200 metres inland from the coast and their size ranged from approximately 4x4 metres to the largest which was the most easterly at 20x5 metres (colony i).

Isolated, small groups of plants were found growing between the main colonies. The plants were in full flower in mid-December and were clearly visible from the road with binoculars. The hillsides were searched carefully for several kilometres either side of the recorded colonies and no further plants were found. A later search of a wider area from the road with binoculars did not reveal any other colonies.

Fig. 4. Rengarenga sites in relation to occupation sites and other significant features.
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Fig. 5. The first colony of rengarenga plants located by the authors is on the steep bank behind the karaka trees in the centre of the photo and is shown as colony b. The occupation site is behind the trees. Colony i is the most easterly. (photo: Graham Harris)

Mātakitaki-a-Kupe ‘the view that was Kupe's’ is a contraction of its earlier name -Te Mātakitakinga a Kupe ki Kaikoura ki te wāhi i haere ai te tamāhine a Kupe. - ‘the gazing of Kupe towards Kaikoura, the place where the daughter of Kupe had gone’ (Te Whaiti 1994:28). The name refers to the area of land in Palliser Bay between the Mangatoetoe Stream in the west and the Waitutuma stream in the east.

The early history of this area is associated with the explorer Kupe, and many of the place names and features attest to Maori occupation in the time of Kupe. One such place is Ngā Rā o Kupe - two massive stone formations

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Fig. 6. Rengarenga rhizomes which provided a food source for Maori. This plant was growing on a rocky outcrop at Māatakitaki-a-Kupe and has smaller rhizomes than those of plants grown in cultivated soil, (photo: Rob Lucas)

which represent the sails of Kupe which were hung up to dry (Te Whaiti 1994:28).

By the time Europeans arrived in the district in the 1840s the Maori population was of the Ngāti Kahungunu iwi. They were descendants of Kahungunu, whose forebears came to Aotearoa on the Tākitimu canoe. Before their arrival in the Wairarapa they had lived in Hawkes Bay having moved there from Poverty Bay in the early 15th century. On arrival they found the district occupied by Rangitāne who were willing to cede ownership of the land in exchange for canoes and weapons. By 1650, Ngāti Kahungunu were in control in southern Wairarapa (Aburn 1987:14). Ngāti Hinewaka, a hapū ‘subtribe’ of Ngāti Kahungunu, settled in the Palliser Bay area and coexisted peaceably with other hapū for some time, however a dispute in which a woman of Ngāti Hinewaka was killed led to the decimation of the hapū of the offender and eventual control of the whole of the Cape Palliser district by Ngāti Hinewaka (Te Whaiti 1994:28).

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Most of the land, consisting of some 2300 hectares, is still owned by Ngāti Hinewaka. The land immediately surrounding the Cape Palliser lighthouse was recently returned to Ngāti Hinewaka (14th December 1993) after being taken forcibly by the Crown in 1897 for the building of the lighthouse.

Te Whaiti (1994:30) reported that at a Maori land court sitting 3 in Masterton the Crown stated that the land was being re-vested in the descendants of its former owners “at nil value in recognition of waahi tapu (sacred place) values that are present on this site”. This decision, and the classification of the coastal area as an “historic area” 4, are tangible acknowledgment of the sacredness of the area to Maori. On 10th July 1871, the whole area known as the Mātakitaki block was set aside by crown grant to ten owners of Ngāti Hinewaka descent. This was a formal recognition by the government that these people were tangata whenua of this land (Leach 1991:4).


Along with the place names that attest to Maori occupation there is considerable archaeological evidence that indicates that the southern Wairarapa area and, in particular, Palliser Bay had several periods of settlement over the past 1000 years. Many of these archaeological sites are evident today.

Although there are numerous archaeological features elsewhere in Palliser Bay and on the Wairarapa east coast, detailed mapping and excavation was confined to seven major complexes (sites where archaeological features were concentrated) and six areas containing smaller complexes, between Whatarangi in the north and the southern corner of Palliser Bay (Leach 1979a:138).

Features identified which indicated that extensive horticultural crop production was undertaken in the area included an extensive series of stone walls, kumara storage pits, stone and soil mounds, and terraces. Analysis of the contents of middens (rubbish pits) gave an indication of the diet of the inhabitants. Modification of the topsoil between the stone walls by the addition of charcoal and beach gravel gave further evidence of crop production practices (Leach 1984:42). Radiocarbon dating of material such as wood charcoal excavated from the sites studied, indicated that some of the sites had been occupied from as early as the 12th century (Leach 1979a: 140).

Leach (1979b:243) concluded that gourds and kumara were widely cultivated at a number of sites at Palliser Bay and that their culture involved at least three types of garden and two storage devices. The flatland or slope strip garden featured stone rows or ditches as boundary markers and persisted from the earliest period (12th century) to the end of the 16th - 279 century, with a decline in precision of layout. Terrace gardens were in use by the 14th century, replacing the earlier mound gardening method. Kumara were stored in narrow rimless pits until they were superseded by larger pits with raised rims.

The stone walls were partly related to clearing operations in the preparation of garden plots and also functioned as boundary markers (Leach 1984:41-2), and provided some shelter from the wind for the crops. Most of the walls are straight and some are up to 200 metres in length.

Studies indicated that the early inhabitants of the region practised a subsistence economy and that the land between the sea and the foothills was used for gardening. Offshore fishing, shellfish gathering, fishing in streams and rivers and snaring birds in the forests were also carried out. Evidence suggests that the area in the early stages of habitation was quite different from today. Forests extended almost to the sea and the river banks were stable and grassed (Leach 1984:61-3). Clearance of vegetation resulted in erosion and eventually led to silting of the inter-tidal areas and a decline in the population of some shellfish species (Leach and Leach 1979b:229-38).

B. F. Leach (1995 personal communication) noted that in the Cook Strait area, including the Cape Palliser region, where the studies were undertaken, groups of people focussed their settlements in valley systems and moved from one part of their settlement region to another according to the season and the availability of food. This pattern was not followed in the more northern areas of New Zealand, where conditions were more favourable for the production of kumara.

It appears that the settlements in the Cape Palliser area were eventually abandoned in the early 16th century, because of an apparent decline in climatic conditions which made kumara and gourd culture marginal, in addition to the depletion of other important food reserves (Leach and Leach 1979b:238).


B. F. Leach has confirmed (1995 personal communication) that no systematic archaeological research was undertaken at the immediate vicinity of the rengarenga colonies, however, he noted that archaeological observations were made at and near the site of the plants during the course of the studies he undertook with his research team. Their extensive research studies were conducted at sites to the north west of where the rengarenga plants are located.

This specific area (near the rengarenga plants) however, covers the full range of concrete evidence left by early Maori inhabitants including evidence of horticultural crop production.

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Significant features noted by Leach (1991:4) at this site include: (i) karaka groves, 5 (ii) an undefended occupation site with obvious terraces and kumara storage pits, and (iii) stone walls and garden areas.

The undefended occupation site was identified by Te Whaiti 1994:29, as Ōrangikōrero. The first rengarenga colonies were found on an escarpment and stream bank that form the south and west boundaries of this site.


From 1846 the Cape Palliser area was leased to European runholders. In 1853 major land purchases were made on behalf of the government and the runholders who were leasing land were able to freehold large areas. By then pastoralism was well established and flourishing.

The Mātakitaki block has been leased by a succession of farmers since the 1860s who stocked first cattle and then converted to sheep in smaller holdings as the development of refrigerated shipping in the 1860s opened up new overseas markets (Aburn 1987:29).


The land at Mātakitaki-a-Kupe is managed by a trust, whose members are Ngāti Hinewaka owners of the Mātakitaki-a-Kupe blocks. The whole Mātakitaki-a-Kupe area has special spiritual significance to the Maori descendants and is regarded by them as a wāhi tapu ‘sacred place’ and they take seriously their responsibility as kaitiaki ‘caretakers/protectors’ (Te Whaiti 1994:30).

An “Open Space Covenant” 6 administered by the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust 7 has covered three of the blocks since 1986, and the coastal strip from the Mangatoetoe Stream to the Waitutuma Stream is designated an “historic area” as detailed earlier.


Unpublished data from the Department of Conservation (Sawyer n.d.) identify browsing by farm stock as a threat to the rengarenga plants recorded on their database as growing in a valley running off Paekakariki Hill Road. R. Burns (1995 personal communication) observed that sheep find the foliage of rengarenga palatable and when placed in a paddock in which small colonies of plants are growing, quickly graze the foliage down to ground level. Sheep have not been grazed on the Matakitaki-a-Kupe blocks for several years, in fact a condition of the QEII covenant does notr allow running sheep on a protected area.

The Mātakitaki-a-Kupe Trust enters into an agreement from time to time - 281 with a local farmer to run cattle on some of the blocks for a short period over the summer months. Because the main rengarenga colonies grow on very steep sites, they are unlikely to be accessible to cattle.


There is a high risk of fire over the summer and autumn months, and the dry grass which covers the coastal strip to the road during this period creates a fire hazard. On 5th February 1990, a camp fire swept through most of the Mātakitaki blocks east of the lighthouse burning large areas of native vegetation. Although the rengarenga plants were in the path of the fire, the authors consider that the plants are likely to have survived as they are able to regenerate quickly from their extensive system of underground rhizomes, which are unlikely to have been damaged.


The nearest established colonies of rengarenga plants to those growing at Mātakitaki-a-Kupe are approximately 40 km away at Turakirae and the Orongorongo coast and on the east coast the closest reported plants (Scheele 1995 personal communication) are those at Kairakau beach in the Hawkes Bay.

It is possible that the presence of the colonies at the Ōrangikōrero occupation site is coincidental and simply part a randomly modified distribution pattern found in the lower North Island, however, the evidence as presented, when taken together suggests to the authors that the rengarenga plants found at Mātakitaki-a-Kupe are more likely to be remnants of colonies which were either: (i) established and cultivated by early Maori, or; (ii) descendants of wild colonies in the area that were managed by Maori in order to perpetuate a useful resource

In summary, evidence that supports either scenario is that: 1. Colenso recorded that rengarenga plants are often found at old occupation sites; 2. the rengarenga plants at Mätakitaki-a-Kupe are growing around the perimeter and in the vicinity of an identified ancient habitation site; 3. rengarenga was a significant plant to Maori as a food source, and it had spiritual significance and medicinal value; 4. the plant was believed to have been cultivated by Maori; 5. no other rengarenga plants are growing nearby; and 6. archaeological evidence indicates that horticultural crop production was undertaken in the vicinity of the Örangikörero occupation site.

It is possible that the natural distribution of rengarenga included the cliffs and escarpments of Palliser Bay in pre-human times and that those plants found at the Ōrangikōrero site are descendants of wild plants managed by Maori. However, had plants occurred naturally along the South Wairarapa - 282 coast before sheep were introduced, it seems likely that some remnants would be found on cliff faces and other places that were inaccessible to sheep. These remnants have not been found despite searches for them. The fact that rengarenga was not found west of Cape Palliser, including near several early Maori occupation sites in the area, can possibly be attributed to heavy stocking by sheep and fewer rocky refugia, however this does not explain why plants are absent to the east and north where inaccessible rocky outcrops are numerous and stocking rates, at least to the boundary of the Matakitaki block, have been similar. A possible explanation is that the steep eroding escarpment immediately to the east of the last rengarenga colony (colony i) is impeding the spread of the plants to the east (refer to fig. 5). Because the hillside is unstable and has few rocky outcrops it is unlikely that rengarenga plants can establish themselves on this site.

The general pattern of regeneration appears to be similar to that observed in the reserves of the Marlborough Sounds where rengarenga colonies survived in a few isolated pockets on cliffs following the introduction of sheep. Once sheep were removed, the plants began to regenerate and spread. Sheep find the leaves of rengarenga palatable and rengarenga plants will not survive continuous grazing over a long period.

The rengarenga plants at Mātakitaki-a-Kupe are growing in nine distinct colonies, which cover a distance of 800 metres with the colony at the occupation site being the most westerly and closest to the sea, while those to the east are located progressively further from the sea and higher up the steep hillsides (refer to fig. 4).

The presence of plant colonies up to 800 metres from the occupation site is not considered to weaken the case because it is possible that the plants around the occupation site were initially established by horticulture and that over time they spread in an easterly direction as the light but relatively large seeds (2.5 mm in diameter) were spread by the wind. Very strong westerly winds frequently blow at Cape Palliser over the summer and autumn months coinciding with the time when seeds ripen and are released from the capsules. As noted above, an unstable hillside appears to be impeding the establishment of the plants further to the east.

It is unlikely that the most easterly of the plant colonies were planted and cultivated or managed, as they are growing on very steep slopes and would not be readily accessible to the inhabitants of the occupation site. Furthermore, the location where the most easterly colonies are growing today (colonies c-i) is likely to have been covered in forest during the earlier period of occupation, as H. Leach (1984) noted that at this time forests extended almost to the sea. Rengarenga grows naturally in open exposed positions and is unlikely to grow in forest.

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If the rengarenga plants at the Ōrangikōrero site were cultivated or managed by early Maori, those colonies of plants possibly covered a larger area than the colonies that remain today, which appear to be refugia, growing on steep banks and rock faces that are inaccessible to sheep.

Those plants growing on the rocky escarpment at the foot of the Ōrangikōrero occupation site and on the nearby rocky outcrops have small compact rhizomes, while those raised in cultivated soil by the authors produced much larger rhizomes. This suggests that those plants remaining at the occupation site are likely to be refugia from more extensive cultivated plantings or colonies of managed plants.

It should be noted that Colenso appears to be the only commentator to raise the possibility that rengarenga were cultivated as a food source and he was careful to state it as a belief, based on the association of rengarenga with deserted habitations and gardens. He did not report having seen rengarenga growing in any contemporary Maori gardens on his numerous pastoral travels through the North Island, and in his writings, he referred to the plant as a wild food source.

However, by the mid to late 19th century when Colenso made his observations, plants such as rengarenga would have lost their significance as a food source with the introduction of relatively easily grown crops such as potato, maize and pumpkin introduced by Pakeha.


The authors are of the opinion that sufficient evidence has been presented to suggest that the rengarenga plants growing at the Ōrangikōrero occupation site are either descendants of plants established and cultivated by Maori or descendants of wild plants that were growing in situ and managed by Maori to perpetuate a plant that was a valuable food and medicinal resource and that also had spiritual significance. From the available information it is not possible to decide which scenario is the more likely.

With the removal of sheep from the area, the plants appear to be following the same pattern of regeneration and dispersal as that observed in the Marlborough Sounds, however an unstable eroding escarpment appears to be impeding the establishment of plants to the east, while few rocky refugia and heavy stocking of sheep is likely to explain the absence of the plant between Cape Palliser and Cape Turakirae. This is a possible explanation for the absence of rengarenga plants at other known habitation sites in the greater Cape Palliser area.

The authors consider that rengarenga was cultivated or managed at the Örangikörero site as a food source which was probably used in the Spring - 284 when fresh food was likely to be scarce and supplies of food were dwindling. It would have been an especially valuable resource in years when the kumara crop was poor. As climatic conditions deteriorated, making conditions marginal for kumara and gourd culture, and food sources such as shellfish declined, rengarenga as a food source is likely to have become increasingly more important until the area was eventually abandoned in the 16th century.


The authors acknowledge that some of the information in this study is cultural knowledge belonging to Ngāti Hinewaka and thank the hapū for allowing it to be published. Bruce Treeby and Rob Lucas, colleagues at The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand made a significant contribution to this study by assisting with field work and providing advice on the technical aspects of this paper. Roger Burns, another colleague conducted trials to determine whether the foliage of rengarenga plants is palatable to sheep. The authors also wish to thank those who provided assistance and advice during the course of this study and who commented on aspects of this paper: Dr. Foss Leach (Museum of New Zealand), Hoturoa Kerr (Waikato University), Sue Scheele (Manaaki Whenua, Landcare Research), Dave Simmons (former curator of ethnology, Auckland Museum), and Cliff Whiting (Museum of New Zealand)

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  • —— 1891. Reminiscences of the Ancient Maoris. Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute, 24:460.
  • Department of Conservation Wellington Conservancy, 1994. Draft Conservation Management Strategy 1994-2003. Volume 1. Appendix 1.
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  • —— and H. M. Leach, (eds) 1979a. Prehistoric Man in Palliser Bay. National Museum of New Zealand Bulletin 21.
  • —— 1979b. Environmental Change in Palliser Bay, in B. F. Leach and H. M. Leach 1979a, pp. 229-40.
  • Leach, H. M., 1979a. Evidence of Prehistoric Gardens in Eastern Palliser Bay, in B. F. Leach and H. M. Leach 1979a, pp. 137-61.
  • —— 1979b. The Significance of Early Horticulture in Palliser Bay for New Zealand Prehistory, in B. F. Leach and H. M. Leach 1979a, pp. 241-9.
  • —— 1984. 1,000 Years of Gardening in New Zealand. Wellington: A. H. and A. W. Read.
  • Moore, L. B. and E. Edgar, 1970. Flora of New Zealand. Volume 2. Wellington: Government Print.
  • Parsons, M. J., 1992. Ethnobotany - A Maori Perspective. Proceedings of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture. Annual Conference 1992, 1:73-80.
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  • Sawyer, J. W. D., n.d. Unpublished data on file, Wellington: Department of Conservation.
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1   Parsons 1992:73 defined ethnobotany as “the scientific study of people and plants and the interactions between them”.
2   We thank an anonymous referee for this information.
3   Maori Land Court ref. 48, Wairarapa minute book: Folios 21-6
4   The Historic Places Act 1980 para 2, defines an Historic Area as “an area which contains an inter-related group of prehistoric or historic features which have historical value as a group even though some or all of the features may have little historic value individually”.
5   Colenso 1868:260 recorded that karaka (Corynocarpus laevigatus) was often planted about Maori villages and that the fruits were an important food source.
6   “Open space” is any area of land or water that should be protected because of its scenic, historical, scientific or recreational importance. An open space covenant is a legal agreement between the land owner and the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust to protect an area of open space. An “open space covenant” is registered against the land title and is binding on the land owner or leaseholder and on all subsequent landowners or leaseholders. The land owner retains title to the land. The Trust pays for the survey and registration and may assist with costs such as fencing, management and revegetation.
7   The Queen Elizabeth 11 National Trust is an organisation which is independent of Government. Its mandate is to protect “open space” for the benefit of New Zealanders.