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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Middle-Earth, Land of Ferns

By Jim Bishop.

I first became aware of New Zealand’s unusual plants 35 years ago when visiting Strybing Arboretum (now the San Francisco Botanical Garden) in Golden Gate Park. Many of the plants were remnants of plants relocated from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in the Marina District. I marveled at the unusual and strange plants that had evolved in isolation from the rest of the world. Today, like many Californians, I grow a number of New Zealand plants in my garden. In 2001, I did a cycling tour of the South Island and had wanted to return and explore more ever since. Last November, Scott and I were able to visit the North Island and get a closer look at what the Kiwis call 'The Bush'. Here is a look at some of the unusual plants.

New Zealand has about 200 native fern species. Around 40% grow nowhere else in the world. They grow from less than one inch tall to over 30 feet. Most obvious and some of the most beautiful are the palm tree-sized tree ferns. There are 7 species of tree ferns native to New Zealand, 3 hairy Dicksonia and 7 scaly Cyathea. Tree ferns are almost everywhere in New Zealand and provide a tropical, ancient look. No wonder New Zealand was used for Middle-earth in the Lord of the Rings movies. My favorite is the black tree fern, Cyathea medullaris. As the name suggests, the thick new fronds and frond stems are black. Dicksonia squarrosa, wheki, is another common tree fern, so common in fact the tree trunks are used for retaining walls and fences. Unlike most tree ferns, wheki has buds on the trunk and can resprout. You frequently see living fences of tree ferns throughout New Zealand.

One of the most ubiquitous plants of the bush is Phormium, New Zealand flax. While not a flax (the flax plant used for linen is Linum usitatissimum), the name comes from the fibrous leaves that were used for rope, clothing and countless other uses by the Māori and European colonists. There is much more variety in wild phormiums compared to the hybrid phoriums we grow in our gardens. But in general they are larger with wider, less colorful leaves and much more prominent blooms. When taking photos of scenery, there seem to always be some robust looking flax plants in the foreground framing the view.

Phormiums growing above beach where part of the movie "The Piano" was filmed

Another common tree in gardens and the wild is the New Zealand Christmas tree, Metrosideros excelsa, known to the locals as Pohutukawa. The common name comes from the red flowers that were just beginning to open during our trip, a month before Christmas. This live oak sized tree is often seen as a street tree here in San Diego but I remember them most on the hillsides and shore of the Coromandel Peninsula, a gorgeous area of the North Island. The tree is good at colonizing lava flows and many had long aerial roots hanging from their branches. There is a smaller hybrid, Metrosideros collina 'Spring Fire,' with lime green foliage and orange-red flowers that is a more appropriate size for San Diego gardens.

Large Metrosideros collina on Coromandel Peninsula

Another distinctive tree in the landscape is Cordyline, the cabbage tree. The Cordylines in New Zealand look exactly like the mature ones frequently seen in front of Victorian houses in San Francisco. More recently the colorful hybrids between the various species of cordylines have become popular garden plants in San Diego. You don’t see many of the hybrids in New Zealand, but in the bush you do see large areas of native Cordylines with their long narrow leaves and small flowers at the end thick trunks.

Cordylines and Phormiums

Often seen growing as understory in the forests and/or mixed in with tree ferns is the only palm species native to New Zealand the nīkau palm, Rhopalostylis sapida. You occasionally see these in California gardens where due to their shape they are often called shaving brush palms. The palm grows very slowly, but can eventually reach 45 feet. There is considerable variation in the wild growing plants and they were most notable in coastal areas. An especially beautiful memory of them was on the steep hillsides next to the wide Marokopa falls, where countless palms grew amongst the tree ferns.

Rhopalostylis sapida, shaving-brush palms

But back to ferns, Cyathea dealbata. the Ponga or silver tree fern, has become the symbol most commonly associated with New Zealand and New Zealand sports teams. It can grow to over 30 feet and its waxy secretions create a silver underside on older fronds. The Māori and European colonizers are said to have used pieces of the frond laid upside down on trails to mark their paths through the bush.

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