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  • Ferns are abundant in our New Zealand landscape, making them a major part of our ecosystems. They are the green flowerless plants with divided leaves that often grow in damp shady areas.

    Images of ferns, in particular the koru and the silver fern, are often used to represent our country in business, culture and sport. This imagery reflects the strong relationship ferns have with our New Zealand identity.

    In our collection of resources on ferns we explore the science of ferns through the work of botanists – the scientists who study plants.

    Botanists past and present

    Botanists have played an important role in our New Zealand history. The plant specimens collected by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander on Captain Cook’s 1769 Endeavour voyage created the first physical record of New Zealand’s natural history. These plant specimens were dried, pressed, mounted and stored. They still exist and form part of herbaria collections here and in the UK. These plant specimens create a tangible link to our past.

    We meet Dr Patrick Brownsey and Dr Leon Perrie, Botany Curators at Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. They introduce us to the herbarium at Te Papa where over 260,000 plant specimens, including 19,000 fern specimens, are stored. We find out about the value of early collections, the role of museums, why botany is their passion and how DNA helped solve a fern mystery.

    Through their work, we learn about, the key characteristics of plants, fern structure and life cycle, the science of classification and identification and how new technologies are being used to answer questions of species origin and relatedness.

    Take up the challenge

    Te Papa Museum has both physical and virtual herbaria and students can do the same. Traditional fern collections shows students how to collect, press, mount and label ferns. Alternative fern collections lets students use their imaginations when creating digital herbaria. Once students have established their collections, they can use the fern specimens or image cards to create a DIY fern classification system. Fern propagation explains how to grow ferns from spores. Finally, students channel their inner acting skills to create storyboards in Using ferns to survive.

    Question bank

    The Ferns – question bank provides a list of questions about ferns and places where their answers can be found. The questions support an inquiry approach.

    Key terms

    For explanations of key concepts, see Ferns – key terms.


    Use this timeline to discover some of the historical and cultural aspects of ferns in New Zealand and take a look at botanists past and present as they explore the science of ferns.

    Useful links

    Visit the Australasian Virtual Herbarium website.

    Find out more about Te Papa's fern collection.

    Watch this Youtube video to see what inspires Te Papa scientists.

      Published 13 October 2010, Updated 1 February 2017 Referencing Hub articles
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