Thursday, February 19, 2015

F is for ferns

If there’s one plant that’s most associated with New Zealand, it’s the fern. It provides both national emblems and the distinctive look of much of the New Zealand countryside. There are around 200 species of ferns in New Zealand (which is a lot for a non-tropical climate), about 40% of which are found nowhere else in the world.

Probably the best known New Zealand fern in the silver fern (Cyathea dealbata), or ponga in Māori (photo above, showing the fronds’ silvery underside, which give it its name). The silver fern is the emblem worn by all our national sporting teams, and also found in logos for New Zealand companies and organisations.
NZ Coat of Arms

The fern has many official uses, too, ranging from the Coat of Arms of New Zealand (right) to war memorials, and it’s also used on graves of fallen New Zealand soldiers. It’s even been proposed as the basis for a new New Zealand flag.

Sometimes, the tightly wound new frond, called a koru, is used as a symbol, too. It forms the basis of the logo for Air New Zealand, our national airlines, among many others. I took the photo of the koru (below–click to enlarge) a few Springs ago in our back yard.

 When I was a new immigrant, one of the most startling things to me was seeing forests of tree ferns—massive things, many metres tall. To me, rasied in the Midwest of the USA, it looked as if dinosaurs might be seen wandering by. It turns out that ferns are nearly twice as old as dinosaurs, emerging during the Devonian period of the Paleozoic era, some 380-400 million years ago (dinosaurs first emerged in the middle to late Triasic period of the Mesozoic era, some 230 million years ago). This means, of course, that ferns were around at the same time the dinosaurs were, so my imagination wasn’t too wrong…

The New Zealand Department of Convervation, which has a stylised koru in its logo, provides these Fern Facts:
  • The leaves of ferns are called fronds and when they are young they are tightly coiled into a tight spiral. This shape, called a ‘koru’ in Māori, is a popular motif in many New Zealand designs.
  • Ferns can be categorised based on their growth form such as tufted, creeping, climbing, perching and tree ferns.
  • One notable New Zealand fern is bracken (rārahu), which grows in open, disturbed areas and was a staple of the early Māori diet in places too cold for the kūmara to grow. The roots were gathered in spring or early summer and left to dry before they were cooked and eaten.
  • The silver fern or ponga is a national symbol and is named for the silver underside of its fronds.
  • The mamaku is New Zealand’s tallest tree fern, growing up to 20 metres high.
  • Wheki is another type of tree fern that can be distinguished by its hairy koru and ‘skirt’ of dead, brown fronds hanging from under the crown. It often forms groves by means of spreading underground rhizomes, which give rise to several stems.
  • Most ferns reproduce sexually, but some ferns also have efficient means of vegetative reproduction, such as the underground stems of bracken and the tiny bulblets that grow on the surface of fronds of the hen-and-chicken fern.
These days, one common fern is actually a pest: The tuber ladder fern, which is invasive and crowds out native ferns. I’ve battled them at every house we’ve lived in, and sometimes it seems kind of hopeless. Fortunately, our current house has several large native tree ferns (and no ladder ferns—yet).

Ferns are a symbol of New Zealand, in much the same way that the maple leaf is a symbol of Canada. Anyone who visits New Zealand will instantly see why that is. Plus, they’re really beautful.

Photo credits:

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PowellRiverBook said...

I'm with you, ferns do look prehistoric. We have lots of smaller ones here in British Columbia. But I'm not sure we have as many varieties as you do. - Margy

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

Yes—and a whole forest of them is practically other-wordly!

Gattina said...

Interesting post and beautiful picture !

rogerogreen said...

Totally off topic, there was a Teachers' Tournament on JEOPARDY last week, and the question was about the body of water between NZ and OZ, and I got it, but the teacher did not! But I did NOT know the fern was like the Canadian maple leaf, so I learned something new here. I GUESS I'll have to come back sometime...

ann nz said...

great lessons on fern. I am curious about the pikopiko and hope to taste it.