Food and medicine
Māori ate a number of ferns. The stems of underground bracken (Pteridium esculentum) contain starch and were a staple food. However, bracken is now known to contain cancer-causing chemicals and should be avoided. More of a delicacy was king fern or para (Marattia salicina), which was cultivated for its tuberous root. The young, curled fiddleheads of many species are edible and were eaten as greens. They are being cultivated again under their Māori name of pikopiko. The inner core of mamaku or black tree fern (Cyathea medullaris) yields a slimy pith that was cut into slabs and baked in a hāngī (earth oven).
Several ferns were used for their medicinal properties, for example, as poultices for skin conditions.
Construction and weaving
Tree fern trunks were used to build houses and food stores, as they are slow to rot and last well in the ground. Today, whekī (Dicksonia squarrosa) is used for retaining walls. Stems of Lycopodium volubile and mangemange (Lygodium articulatum) were used as binding twine. Stems of the clubmoss puakarimu (Lycopodium deuterodensum) were woven with flax to make waterproof capes.
The Victorian fern craze
The fashion in Victorian England to collect, cultivate and display ferns spread to New Zealand. Two Aucklanders, Eric Craig and Thomas Cranwell, produced albums of pressed ferns for sale. Examples of these are held in New Zealand museums (and elsewhere). In 1880, fern enthusiast H. B. Dobbie used the cyanotype process – an early form of photography – to produce illustrations of 148 New Zealand ferns which he published in book form. They are now known as ‘blue books’ because the ferns appear as white silhouettes on a blue background. Few copies of Dobbie’s blue books survive. Forty years later, Dobbie wrote New Zealand ferns, the definitive reference work on New Zealand ferns for more than 60 years.
Anton Seuffert was a Bohemian-born cabinetmaker who worked in Auckland from about 1860. He was greatly admired for his intricate inlaid marquetry designs, particularly of ferns, on writing bureaux, tables and fern-album covers. The Larkworthy table, now at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England, features 29 identifiable species of New Zealand fern.
Symbol of New Zealand
Ferns are an unofficial symbol of New Zealand’s national identity. Their dominance in native bush, and their importance as food and medicine, led to their common use as design elements in traditional Māori carving. Today, the koru is used as a commercial logo for Air New Zealand. Fernland was an early colloquial name for New Zealand, and later the fern was associated with the country’s products. One of the most enduring is Fernleaf butter.
Today’s New Zealand Post uses the silver fern for marketing its stamps, and it has also appeared on coins, banknotes and the nation’s coat of arms. It has inspired generations of decorative artwork. The Silver Fern was the name of the passenger railcar that ran from Auckland to Wellington between 1970 and 1991. Increasingly, there have been calls for the silver fern to replace the Union Jack on the New Zealand flag. Above all, it is the sense of pride associated with its place on sports jerseys, and in the names of national teams such as netball’s Silver Ferns, and rugby's Black Ferns (women) and the All Blacks (men), that gives the fern an unassailable place in New Zealand’s culture.