Fiddlesticks and Fiddleheads

I imagine holding a fiddlehead in my hand – it’s light and fragile but weighty with comfort. At the moment we’ve been called to return to our homes, to seek safety within the fold but, in time, we will emerge into a new beginning normal.

Fiddleheads are the unfurled fronds of a young fern – a symbol of new life waiting to burst forth. But, with the lockdown, I feel a movement in the opposite direction – forced to curl up and contain life in a tight space. Oh Fiddlesticks! (I’ll come back to that thought later).

Living in NZ, I’m surrounded by ferns but have tended to be dismissive of them as just green, and in some cases, untidy. My preference has been for lush and pretty plants – the extroverts and attention seekers.

But I’ve needed to purchase some ferns for a shady spot in my new garden. Which has meant research for the correct ones and the acquaintance of some of these introverts for planting. I’ve become entranced by their differing characters and close up detail and a few of their Latin names are beginning to spill off my tongue. You can hear me in a garden centre calling out “where’s the Asplenium bulbiferum?”

It’s amazing how learning can change our perspective and give us new appreciation of something

I’m not a scientist or botanist so these are simple facts about ferns (Polypodiopsida or Polypodiophyta). However I present them like a child breathless with fresh knowledge:

  • Ferns are vascular plants with a xylem and phloem for transporting water and nutrients BUT they have neither seeds nor flowers
  • They reproduce via spores and most do so sexually. I’ll not go into detail about their sex lives – it’s complicated.  Essentially though, a spore becomes a small, thread-like or heart-shaped (isn’t that cute?) structure growing close to the ground. It possesses both egg and sperm but the sperm need to land in water to enable them to swim to the eggs for fertilisation.
  • However, bracken reproduces by means of underground stems and Asplenium bulbiferum – Hen and chicken fern – grows bulbils on the fronds (these can be removed and potted up to produce new plants)
  • There are upward of 10,000 species of ferns
  • Some are teeny at 20mm and the mamaku is a New Zealand tree fern that grows up to 20 m tall
  • Leaves of ferns are called fronds – they can be simple or highly divided
  • The main stalk is called a stipe, the leafy structures growing from the stipe are pinnae which may again be divided into smaller pinnules
  • (Palms and members of the carrot family also have pinnate leaves, so can look similar, but they are seed not spore producers)
  • The fibrous roots of ferns need plenty of oxygen. While a lot thrive in damp, shady places they hate being waterlogged
  • Some species, like bracken (rārahu), actually thrive in arid, open spaces
  • There are differing growth habits of ferns –  tufted, creeping, climbing, perching, tree 
Arrow pointing to bulbil on a hen and chicken fern leaf

detail of a tree fern

An integral symbol in Maori art is the Koru. It’s a spiral shape based on the appearance of an unfurling Silver fern frond. According to, The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand (Teara): the circular shape “conveys the idea of perpetual movement, and its inward coil suggests a return to the point of origin. The koru therefore symbolises the way in which life both changes and stays the same.” 

Now I imagine holding a fiddlehead in my hand – it’s light and fragile but weighty with comfort. At the moment we’ve been called to return to our homes, to seek safety within the fold but, in time, we will emerge into a new beginning normal.

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