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The ‘silver fern’ Cyathea dealbata – ponga in te reo Māori – is a species of tree fern only found in New Zealand.
Although they are called ‘silver ferns’, the undersides of the fronds are usually white; only in some northern populations are they actually 'silver'. The undersides reflect moonlight, making them useful aids to navigating bush pathways at night.
The silver fern has been accepted as a symbol of New Zealand’s national identity since the 1880s. To Māori, the elegant shape of the fronds stood for strength, stubborn resistance, and enduring power. To Pākehā (New Zealanders of non-Māori descent), the fern symbolised their sense of attachment to their homeland.
The fern symbol’s association with our national representative sports teams and the armed forces over many years gives it deep emotional resonance for New Zealanders.
It has been worn by our national rugby teams since 1888, and its associations with the military are almost as long. First used by New Zealand troops fighting in South Africa (1898-1902), the fern symbol continued to be used to identify New Zealand units during both world wars and subsequent conflicts. The symbol’s greatest emotional impact of course comes from its use to adorn the headstones of our war dead.
– Michael Fitzgerald, Honorary Research Associate & Leon Perrie, Curator Botany