The New Zealand Fern

Silver ferns, with their leaves turned upward to reflect moonlight, helped Māori hunters and warriors to find their path homeward. Photograph: © Jeffrey Cardenas

As I begin this long goodbye to New Zealand I am focused on the ocean passage ahead. Yet, in these final weeks ashore, I am also inexorably drawn back to the terra firma of this lovely country.

Click on the individual photos for high resolution images

New Zealand’s ferns are an iconic symbol of this country. To Pākehā (New Zealanders of non-Māori descent), the fern symbolizes a sense of attachment to their homeland. It represents the national identity of this country. The symbol was first used in the 19th Century by New Zealand troops fighting in South Africa and it continued to be used to identify New Zealand units during both world wars and subsequent conflicts. All Commonwealth war graves of fallen New Zealand soldiers have the silver fern engraved on their tombstones.

To Māori, the elegant shape of the fronds stands for strength, stubborn resistance, and enduring power. There are hundreds of varieties of ferns in New Zealand. Ferns were used by Māori for their medicinal properties. The mouki and parako were used for skin rash, kiwakiwa was chewed to alleviate a sore mouth or tongue, the root of rahurahu was used to prevent seasickness. The silver frond of the ponga has long been used for marking tracks in the bush, springy leaves of waewaekoukou form a good bush mattress, and stems were used by Māori as a binding twine for making eel traps.

The magnificent silver fern is a variety of tree fern found only in New Zealand. It grows to over 10 meters high in the verdant forests on both islands. Māori hunters and warriors used the silver underside of the fern leaves to find their way home. When bent over, the fronds would catch the moonlight and illuminate a path through the forest.

According to Māori legend, the silver fern once lived in the sea until the plant with its sacred power entered the forest to help guide the Māori people on their travels.

At the navigation station aboard Flying Fish, I have placed a silver fern leaf next to the compass. It is a talisman that I hope will also help guide me on the long journey home.

Fiddlehead, the new growth of a New Zealand fern.

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Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2019

All rights reserved






13 thoughts on “The New Zealand Fern

  1. Your delight in reality is awesome! As TS Eliot wrote in Little Gidding: ‘quick now. Here now. Humankind cannot bear reality.’ You are proving otherwise. I am grateful.

    *From:* Flying Fish *Sent:* Thursday, April 4, 2019 7:22 PM *To:* *Subject:* [New post] The New Zealand Fern

    flyingfishsail posted: ” As I begin this long goodbye to New Zealand I am, of course, thinking about the sea ahead. Yet, in these final weeks ashore, I am also inexorably drawn back to the terra firma of this beautiful country. New Zealand’s ferns are an iconic symbol of thi”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Father Baker as you know better than most, the spiritual and natural worlds are as one. And it doesn’t take an epic journey around the globe to see the beauty in this world—it’s everywhere around us regardless of where we are. We need only to open our eyes to it. Thank you for your comments.


  2. Jeffrey, Thank You for sharing you thoughts and wisdom of New Zealand’s precious ferns. May the silver fern at your compass lead you on a safe journey home.
    Byron Clark

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron, I am pleased that you follow these posts and thank you for your comments. Māori and their Polynesian brothers and sisters were great navigators. If a fern leaf somehow illuminated the way for their journeys then it’s good enough for me.


  3. .about the ferns..very interesting..I will paint a few from your photos…I love your messages.. Sorrry you and Tom were unable to connect in New Zealand…He was racing in a sailing with big boats. He said after the races,he and Dana traveled for a week in New Zealand…loved it… Joyce Lihan

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joyce, It is a supreme compliment that these photos inspire you to paint. Another suggestion: Get on a plane and come visit New Zealand 🙂 It is a natural wonderland sure to inspire any artist.


  4. Hi Jeffrey,

    I loved the tree ferns. I tried to use the design to make stained glass windows but it never quite captured how cool they are. And I didn’t know about the moonlight on the silver part. Really interesting. I totally enjoy your blogs. Thanks for sending them!



    Liked by 1 person

    • The tree ferns are otherworldly, especially when walking through a thick forest of them. The light comes through those segmented leaves like a kaleidoscope. Thank you for following, and thanks for your feedback, Marilyn.


  5. Wonderful piece of history. Thank you for all of the inspiring stories.
    This is a beautiful one indeed.
    What a great talisman.
    Blessing you on this next phase of your journey.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the blessing Oakleigh. Leaving New Zealand will be bittersweet. It is so peaceful here. I walk each day through a tree fern jungle near the boat mooring. It is so quiet I can hear my heartbeat.


  6. Jeff I always look forward to your next blog.Brings back memories of Geography class as a child 🧒 Wishing you safe passage to Figi.Happy Easter.


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