Of ferns, flags, foliage, and fall

On March 1, I awoke to sun streaming in the window, a rousing chorus of cicadas, kaka shrieking as they flew between their favorite roosts, and a friendly post from Facebook.

fb autumn

I was momentarily bewildered, and instinctively looked out the window for verification.  Where were the golden beech leaves, the bright red maples and black gums, the oaks’ deep magentas?  Or even the brown drifts accumulating under any of these trees?  Oh… right – in New Zealand, autumn is not fall.  Leaves are not deciduous here.  Everything is still green.

But wait – it’s only March 1, not the March 20 equinox, so it should still be summer, right?Apparently not.  According to several sources, March 1 is regarded as the official change of seasons here.  This is a meteorological, not an astronomical designation, however.  I can accept that there are cultural differences in acknowledging seasonal transitions, but I am still perplexed by Facebook’s use of northern hemisphere icons in its autumnal greeting to me, here in New Zealand. Grapes – OK, there is a vibrant wine industry, and yes, we are entering harvest time. But oak leaves? Pumpkins?

Typically, when talking about seasons with my students, I ask them what signs indicate a particular season, or the change to a different one, and these are usually pretty straightforward: falling leaves, snow, new buds, hot sun. To answer this question for myself, I went looking for physical changes that would tell me that it is autumn in New Zealand.  It is very hard for someone who has spent their entire life in a latitude where seasons display their differences through color and temperature to know what physical evidence to look for. I decided that the Botanic Gardens, which host plants from all over the world, might provide this.  However, after walking around searching in vain for anything that looked different than it did a month ago, I was stymied.


Flowers still bloomed and attracted butterflies and bees, the leaves were still the same shade of green and clearly had no intention of falling, and there were no squirrels frantically scampering about collecting acorns and walnuts.  I located an oak tree (Common, or English Oak, Quercus robur) with plenty of large, green acorns in the midst of its vibrant green foliage, and stood studying it for awhile, wondering how this transplant from another hemisphere adjusts to the different seasonal regimen here.  As if in answer, a brown leaf sailed down from the tree and landed at my feet.  Just one.

english oak

Realizing that I needed to abandon my notions of what autumn should look like, I turned my focus instead to a set of truly iconic New Zealand plants: ferns.  40% of New Zealand’s ferns are endemic, occurring nowhere else, making them perfect candidates for the “Plants from another Planet” designation. Ferns exist worldwide, primarily in tropical habitats, but in temperate New Zealand, they have great stature – quite literally. The mamuka, or black tree fern (Cyathea medullaris), can reach a height of ten meters, while climbing ferns such as hound’s tongue or kowaowao (Microsorum pustulatum) have adaptations that allow them to exploit the height of many tall trees.

black tree fernhounds tongue

Wellington’s Botanic Gardens display dozens of New Zealand fern species.  There is a group known colloquially as spleenworts, from the resemblance of the spleen to spore-bearing structures (sori) on the backs of the fronds. One of these, the mother spleenwort or pikopiko (Asplenium bulbiferum), actually has small bulbs that develop, drop off, and essentially produce clones of the “mother.” The fronds are edible, as are many of the native ferns, and according to the “doctrine of signatures” philosophy of herbal medicines, would also be beneficial for spleen maladies.

hen chicken

The para, or king fern (Ptisana salicina) is another fern whose edible fronds and potato-like root structure have been heavily exploited by human settlers, browsed and uprooted by animals such as pigs, sheep, and cattle, not to mention rare-plant collectors.  It is quite threatened now, and protected.

king fern

Another group of ferns, known as hard ferns and including the palm-leaf fern (Blechnum novae-zelandiae), have the Maori name kiokio.  Like many plant leaves, kiokio fronds first emerge with a pinkish-red color, displaying anthocyanin pigments.  As they mature, they develop the green chlorophyll pigment that will eventually completely mask the red.


Finally, I came across a fern that actually may represent a new season, politically speaking. It is a fern whose popularity has sparked considerable controversy here recently, and whose visibility may soon be even more pronounced: the ponga, or silver fern (Cyathea dealbata).


Most people recognize ponga as the logo of the wildly popular NZ rugby team, the All Blacks, though it actually represented New Zealand long before this as a Boer War battle emblem.  Ponga is one of the most common tree ferns, whose fronds have a silver-white underside. The controversy stems from a recent referendum on changing the New Zealand flag from a design bearing the Union Jack to one that is of more uniquely New Zealand origin.  While many options were considered, the referendum narrowed the choice to either keeping the current flag, or an alternate one featuring the silver fern and the Southern Cross constellation.


Voting began this week and ends March 24, with the official result to be announced on March 30. Unofficial surveys conducted in common polling places like the Garage Project suggest that Kiwis are less concerned about choosing their own flag design than on spending $26 million to do so.




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