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History of ferns

NZ Gardener magazine, June 2021

The lush beauty and mystery of ferns have fascinated botanists and collectors for hundreds of years. Bee Dawson details how the plants have come to cement their place in Kiwi culture.

Glorious in our bush and inescapable in our culture, ferns are integral to New Zealand’s identity. The silver fern, named for the silver underside of its fronds, has been used as our national symbol since the 1880s.

The popularity of ferns started well before then, however. Māori have always prized their medicinal properties and frequently used fern fronds as motifs in their carving; not only were they beautiful, but the ferns represented strength, enduring power and stubborn resistance.

The world’s 13,000 fern species range from the small South American aquatic fern marsilea (which looks like a four-leaf clover) to the 20-metre-tall Norfolk tree fern. New Zealand’s 200 or so species range from towering mamaku tree ferns to filmy ferns just 20mm long.

Magic and Medicine

For hundreds of years ferns’ lack of flowers and seeds meant that no-one could understood how they reproduced. As mystery morphed into magic, fern folklore developed.

In Austria it was suggested that anyone who found a fern flower would become omniscient, see buried treasures, and understand the language of animals and birds.

The presumed invisibility of fern seed led to the belief that anyone carrying one would also be rendered invisible. In Henry IV, Shakespeare wrote ‘We have the receipt of fern seed: we walk invisible’. The mystique of ferns is also reflected in evocative names such as fairy moss, moonwort, maidenhair, Christmas, sensitive and royal.

Ferns have been prized for their medicinal qualities since ancient times – different varieties were reputed to heal ailments as wide ranging as asthma, hair loss, kidney complaints and worms.

They had other uses as well. The English herbalist Gerard (1545–1612) wrote ‘the root of ferne cast into a hogshead of wine keepeth it from souring’. For millennia bracken fern has been used as litter for livestock and thatch for cottage roofs while bracken ashes were once integral to the manufacture of lye soap and glass. In New Zealand, rārahu (bracken fern) was a staple of the early Māori diet in places too cold for the kūmara to grow.

Science replaced mystery when, in 1794, John Lindsay, a surgeon in Jamaica, discovered a reliable method of raising ferns from spores.

Almost thirty years later, London doctor and scientist, Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, realised that glass cases were ideal for protecting ferns from London’s air pollution. He joined forces with nurseryman George Loddiges and within a couple of years the two had successfully grown 30 species of fern in what were to be known as Wardian cases – glass containers something akin to the modern terrarium.

A mania for collecting

These advances coincided with a groundswell of interest in natural history and by the mid-1800s fern collecting had become a national obsession in Victorian Britain. This extraordinarily democratic activity was embraced by modest country folk, local lords, and amateur botanists, but the most passionate fern hunters were middle-class women.

Collecting ferns

As pterodomania or “fern fever” swept the country, collectors armed themselves with a narrow fern trowel (for digging between rocks) and a botanist’s tin case (carefully lined with wet cloth or moss so as to keep the plants fresh) and sallied forth to hotspots of fern activity (most especially Devon). One enthusiast always took a walking stick with a 6-inch-long steel pick on one end and a hammer on the other. Magnifying lenses were an optional extra.

The overwhelming desire to “capture” a rare fern led the more intrepid collectors to wade through streams, lean over fast-flowing rivers, scale rock faces and descend gorges. Accidents were common and sometimes fatal.

Courting couples relished the opportunities that fern hunting provided for escaping chaperones. In 1869 an article in Punch, the British weekly magazine of humour and satire, observed: “Botanising is not a bad way of getting over the afternoon, and if you can get your basket well furnished so much the better; and it is a well-known fact that the rarest specimens grow in the least frequented spots, so you and your blooming companion can – but the hint is sufficient.”

Country people guided collectors to remote fern localities while itinerant fern vendors plundered the countryside and sent ferns to the cities by train. Once there, the precious fronds were sold on the streets or hawked from door to door. Rare species of fern became rarer still.

Fern lovers wore jewellery with ferns crafted from silver, jet or bog oak. Fern pottery patterns were introduced by firms such as Royal Worcester, Wedgwood and Mintons Ltd. The fern motif was also used on glass, metal, textiles, printed paper, wood and sculpture. Ferns appeared on everything from christening presents to gravestones, wallpapers to chamber pots.

By the late 19th century almost every house had a potted fern. Well-off enthusiasts kept rare fern varieties in a Wardian case to enliven their parlour window in winter, while the really rich built outdoor ferneries or fern houses (greenhouses devoted to ferns). Built around 1927-28, the Fernery at Larnach Castle on the Otago Peninsula was constructed of basalt rocks and Oamaru limestone. It is probable that the roof used was taken from the ship The Paloona which was broken up at Port Chalmers about 1927.

Collectors pressed fern fronds between sheets of absorbent paper which were then sandwiched between two boards with leather straps drawn tightly around them. Young ladies framed arrangements of pressed ferns, used them to decorate boxes and inked them to make prints. Dried fronds were carefully mounted in albums and lovingly labelled with the help of the latest fern book. Some fern lovers took a shortcut and bought a complete album.

Album cover and pressed fern sample

In New Zealand botanist Charles Jeffs collected ferns, prepared albums for sale, commissioned craftsman Anton Seuffert to create exquisite covers and then sold them to prosperous clients in New Zealand or overseas.

When a small tin box was discovered in an attic in Ontario, Canada in the 1860s, it was found to contain a rare botanical treasure: 20 specimens of New Zealand ferns, prepared by Charles Jeffs and each with their rongoā Māori (Māori medicinal use) penned to the side.

The collection, which had been commissioned by Tāwhiao, the second Māori King, had been given to Dr JT Rennie, a Canadian who had been working among the Tainui people in the late 1880s. Today, the specimens, the tin box and cover sheet are some of the most precious objects in Te Papa’s botany collection.

The Te Papa Herbarium

The oldest New Zealand ferns in the Te Papa Herbarium date back to Captain Cook’s first voyage of discovery on the Endeavour (1768 to 1771).

Botany curator Dr Leon Perrie (the herbarium’s “fern man”) explains that these once shared cabin space with Captain Cook as well as botanical collectors Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, botanical artist Sydney Parkinson and Tahitian navigator Tupaia. “They were lucky to survive. When the Endeavour was sinking in the Great Barrier Reef the crew threw the cannons overboard, but the botanical specimens were kept safe (well, they were a lot lighter!).”

When missionary and printer William Colenso was exploring the North Island, he collected thousands of plants. He generally kept a specimen for himself and sent other specimens to William Hooker and his son Joseph at Kew Gardens in England. Colenso’s collection was later gifted to what was to become the Te Papa herbarium.

Leon Perrie is currently redoing the Flora for New Zealand ferns, a massive undertaking that involves writing detailed technical descriptions to complement clearly identifiable images. Many of these have already been placed online and are already accessible. When the Flora is finished, in about two years, the information will be published in field guides.

Leon points out that discoveries are still being made in the 21st century; although most are made in the great outdoors, one of the most remarkable was in fact made in the herbarium. He recalls the memorable day he placed a specimen of tanglefern, which had been collected in 1948, under the microscope. “I almost fell off my chair,” he says. “It was a fourth, previously unknown, species!”

New Zealand Ferns, 172 varieties, 1892

First published in NZ Gardener magazine’s June 2021 issue