Did you know that our silver fern occurs naturally nowhere else in the world?

Dr Pat Brownsey told us that ferns have been significant in Māori and European cultures for hundreds of years. His talk focused on the latter and drew on both his botanic and philatelic experience. Pat covered three main areas:

  • fern discoveries by European expeditions to New Zealand in the 18th and 19th centuries
  • the burgeoning images of ferns in public documents and household articles from the late 1800s
  • current usage of the fern as a cultural icon

Pat gave a highly informative summary of the early botanic collectors: Banks, Solander and the Forsters on Cook’s voyages; D’Urville among others on French expeditions; Hooker on the Ross Antarctic voyage who became director of Kew Gardens, and his good friend Colenso, the first resident botanist in New Zealand.

The fern specimens these explorers found are dispersed in European museum collections but some duplicates are held in Te Papa, as are copies of publications describing and illustrating the plants. Hooker’s 1867 Handbook of the New Zealand Flora includes 135 ferns – there are nearly 200 species now known.

In the Victorian era, the craze for ferns – or pteridomania, we learnt – was seized on by New Zealand.  Ferns were prevalent in houses and gardens and their designs were reproduced in albums, wallpaper, curtains and notably Seuffert’s furniture. Ferns were represented in the first stamp produced entirely in New Zealand in 1878 and in many subsequent editions. In 1906 the fernery at the NZ International Exhibition in Christchurch was a star attraction for two million visitors.

The fern has increasingly come to represent New Zealand, promoted strongly through rugby tours since 1888/89 and becoming a key element of tourist advertising, coinage and banknotes, as well as the country’s coat of arms. It is widely used as a marketing and branding tool today, for instance by NZ Police and Air New Zealand. The fern was the go-to feature of contenders for a new NZ flag.

Dr Pat Brownsey is Science Research Fellow of Botany, as well as Honorary Curator of Stamps, at Te Papa where he has worked for over 40 years. He is an authority on the ferns of New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific.

Ruth Payne
Member, Friends of Te Papa