A new tree fern

New Zealand has a new tree fern – kind of.

Te Papa Research Fellow Patrick Brownsey and I have recently recognised a subspecies within the stumpy tree fern, tuokura, Dicksonia lanataThe new name is Dicksonia lanata subspecies hispida

The newly recognised Dicksonia lanata subsp. hispida. Fairly common in the northern North Island, usually in kauri forests. Photo Leon Perrie. © Te Papa.

The newly recognised Dicksonia lanata subspecies hispida. Fairly common in the northern North Island, usually in kauri forests. Photo Leon Perrie. © Te Papa.

It is only kind of a new tree fern, as it was first recognised as something different way back in 1844! When William Colenso first described Dicksonia lanata, he thought it contained two entities, naming one Dicksonia lanata variety hispida.

William Colenso. A man of many endeavours, including botany.

William Colenso. His many endeavours, including botany, in early colonial New Zealand make for an interesting read.

Biography of William Colenso in Te Papa’s Collections Online.

Objects relating to William Colenso in Te Papa’s Collections Online.

Colenso’s hispida name was largely subsequently ignored, possibly because he did not provide much detail. However, it has long been appreciated that Dicksonia lanata is unusually variable.

Populations north of Auckland produce a short trunk, to about 2 m, whereas those to the south have no truck at all; i.e., the latter are a trunk-less tree fern! But is this because they are different entities, or because populations in colder areas do not form a trunk?

A molecular investigation by Robbie Lewis at Massey University about 15 years ago indicated that the northern trunked and southern trunk-less plants were genetically distinguishable. Subsequently, Pat and I have worked out additional external features by which to separate them – their hairs are particularly useful.

The hairs of Dicksonia lanata subspecies lanata are in obvious tufts, as at left.  The hairs of subspecies hispida are not in tufts, as at right. © Te Papa.

The hairs of Dicksonia lanata subspecies lanata are in obvious tufts, as at left. The hairs of subspecies hispida are not in tufts, as at right. © Te Papa.

After our study, we think the northern trunked and southern trunk-less plants should be classified differently, but at the rank of subspecies, entailing a ‘new name’. The taxonomic rank of subspecies is often used for distinguishable but geographically-separated lineages. By contrast, the rank of variety, although popular in Colenso’s day, is now little used, as it has no clear meaning.

The two subspecies

Dicksonia lanata subspecies lanata occurs from the Coromandel southwards through the North Island and along the northern and west coasts of the South Island. It doesn’t form a trunk. The hairs on the underside of the frond are in obvious ‘woolly’ tufts (hence the Latin lanata). It can dominate the ground cover under forests in colder areas (e.g., Urewera ranges).

Dicksonia lanata subspecies lanata never grows a trunk. It is a trunk-less tree fern! Photo Leon Perrie © Te Papa.

Dicksonia lanata subspecies lanata never grows a trunk. It is a trunk-less tree fern! Photo Leon Perrie © Te Papa.

Dicksonia lanata subspecies hispida occurs from North Cape to Kaipara and Great Barrier Island. It forms a short trunk, up to about 2 m tall. The hairs on the underside of the frond are not tufted but more uniformly distributed. It is often found in kauri forest.

More information

Limited access to the full paper is available here.  If this doesn’t work, email me for a copy of the paper.

Dicksonia lanata in Te Papa’s Collections Online.

Te Papa’s online guide to New Zealand tree ferns.

3 Responses

  1. phil

    Thank you.

    I will make a point of stopping and looking this species on my next trip North

    Much appreciated.

    Reply
  2. Phillip

    Fascinating article- thanks!

    If one was driving up north, where would expect to find one of these ferns?

    thanks

    Reply
    • Leon Perrie

      HI Phillip,
      Accessible places to see Dicksonia lanata subsp. hispida include Trounson Kauri Park (near Waipoua forest), many of the walks to see the big kauri trees in Waipoua forest, Puketi Forest Nature Trail and Manginagina Scenic Reserve (both eastern side of Puketi Forest), and Omahuta Forest Kauri Sanctuary (western side of Puketi Forest).
      The map here also provides a guide: http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/Taxon/6709
      If you see kauri north of Auckland, there’s a good chance of Dicksonia lanata subsp. hispida also being around, especially as you get further into Northland.

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