Ambiguous plant life – art daisies and hard ferns

Alan Reynolds’s Saga is one of the paintings currently on display in Te Papa’s Ngā Toi exhibition. It is described as a winter landscape, with dead plants bursting from the frozen earth.

Saga, 1956. Reynolds, Alan. Purchased 1957. © Te Papa.

Ngā Toi’s On The Wall description.

Amongst the bleakness, my eyes are drawn to just-a-little-right of centre, where the white elongate structure with one spiky end is unmistakably the fruit of a daisy.

You’ll have seen this if you’ve ever used your breathe to disperse the ‘parachutes’ of a mature dandelion. The black spiky shapes in the mid-ground may be similar, and perhaps also the large white structure in the lower fore-ground.

Wikipedia’s page on achenes, including the fruit of daisies.

Anyhow, the fruit clearly represents the opportunity for renewed life amongst the desolation. Indeed, many species from the daisy family thrive in disturbed areas; many have wind-dispersed fruit (like this one) well suited to arriving early in a newly available habitat.

This ambiguity of what is alive, especially when plant parts are not green, got me thinking about hard ferns, on which, not-coincidentally, my research is currently focused.

Kiokio, Blechnum novae-zelandiae, with a fertile, spore-producing frond at top-left. Photo: Leon Perrie. © Te Papa.

Kiokio, Blechnum novae-zelandiae, with a fertile, spore-producing frond at top left. Photo: Leon Perrie. © Te Papa.

The spore-producing fertile fronds look markedly different to the green, sterile fronds in most of the 18 species of Blechnum hard ferns indigenous to New Zealand. The segments of the fertile fronds are very narrow and black or brown, and it is on these that the spores are produced.

People unfamiliar with these ferns understandably think that these fronds are sick or dead, to the point where some gardeners cut them off; which is rather ironic from a Darwinist-type perspective that life is about reproduction.

Creek fern, Blechnum fluviatile, with its fertile fronds erect above the rosette of sterile fronds. Photo © Leon Perrie.

Creek fern, Blechnum fluviatile, with its fertile fronds erect above the rosette of sterile fronds. Photo © Leon Perrie.

Colenso’s hard fern, Blechnum colensoi, with a fertile frond at centre. That it is brown rather than black indicates that the spores have largely been shed. Photo: Leon Perrie. © Te Papa.

Colenso’s hard fern, Blechnum colensoi, with a fertile frond at centre. That it is brown rather than black indicates that the spores have largely been shed. Photo: Leon Perrie. © Te Papa.

Thread fern, Blechnum filiforme, with fertile fronds top left. This species climbs from the ground up tree trunks, and usually only produces fertile fronds above about 2 m. Photo © Leon Perrie.

Thread fern, Blechnum filiforme, with fertile fronds top left. This species climbs from the ground up tree trunks, and usually only produces fertile fronds above about 2 m. Photo © Leon Perrie.

This characteristic of producing such different-looking fronds is within New Zealand unique to the Blechnum hard ferns, making it an easy and obvious way to identify the group. However, elsewhere in the world, other unrelated ferns do similarly while some Blechnum produce fertile fronds indistinguishable from their sterile fronds but for the spore capsules.

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