AppearanceThis fern is known to grow to heights of 10 metres or more . The crown is dense, and mature fronds tend to be about 4 metres long and have a silver-white colouration on the undersides. This distinctive silver colouration has made them useful for laying along tracks for night walking. The scales are a dark brown and are often twisted and glossy. Rhizomes very rarely prostrate, usually erect, forming a woody trunk up to 12 metres tall, 160 to 450 millimetres in diameter, covered in light brown or white projecting stipe bases; bearing scales near the apex.
HabitatArriving relatively late in New Zealand's history during the Pliocene epoch , the silver fern occurs on the main islands of New Zealand—although absent from the west and south regions of the South Island—and on the Chatham Islands to the east. Its primary habitat is subcanopy areas of drier forests and in open scrub, although it is occasionally found on bush margins and in more open areas, and has been recorded from amongst rushes in a dune slack.
The fern is known to grow well in well-drained humus, and once established, it will tolerate drier conditions. It does best when sheltered from winds and should be protected from frost.
CulturalThe earliest use of the silver fern as an official emblem was by the New Zealand Army during the Second Boer War. Since then, the silver fern has been used by the New Zealand Expeditionary Force during both world wars, and all Commonwealth war graves of fallen New Zealand soldiers have the silver fern engraved on their tombstones. During the 1956 Suez Crisis, Egyptians took exception to New Zealand and Canadian peacekeepers having the Union Flag on their uniforms. Canadian troops wore the Maple Leaf whereas the New Zealand contingent wore a silver fern symbol. New Zealand peacekeepers have since used both the silver fern and kiwi symbols for different deployments to differentiate from their Australian and British counterparts.
Additionally, several British Army units wear the silver fern, normally as a battle honour granted for serving with New Zealand troops. For example, the Queen’s Royal Hussars, the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry and the Warwickshire Yeomanry, all of whom fought with 2nd New Zealand Division at the Second Battle of El Alamein.
The silver fern has long been used on dairy products, including the logo of New Zealand Natural, and was trademarked as early as 1885. It is a logo for many other organisations, such as the rail operator KiwiRail. The Silver Fern is also the name of a class of railcar.
Silver fern fronds appear on the coat of arms of New Zealand. Some alternative flags for New Zealand, such as the silver fern flag, utilise the fern. The official proposal of the 2015–2016 New Zealand flag referendums featured the silver fern. The silver fern is also used extensively within politics and printed material, such as the logo of the New Zealand Labour Party.
The ''koru'' symbol is inspired by the shape of an unfurling silver fern frond. It is found extensively in Māori art, from carving to the official Māori flag, and is used in a stylised form as the logo for national airline Air New Zealand. Its circular shape conveys the idea of perpetual movement, and its inward coil suggests a return to the point of origin.
In short, the fern has become one of the most widely recognised symbols of New Zealand, next to the kiwi—however, it is not an official national symbol.
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