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The history of our national symbol

16 Sep 2016
By Karl Wixon
FernMark NZ Story Blog 1

There is no denying the silver fern (Cyathea dealbata) is one of our nations most recognised national symbols, but what is less recognised is its story of origin, its whakapapa kōrero. 

In pre-European times Māori had many uses for this indigenous tree fern from the use of its trunk for building, foliage for bedding, sap for medical purposes and its spikes for small bird spears, but one of its every day uses was as a trail marker. By simply snapping, over-turning and exposing the silvery white underside of the silver fern leaf and pointing it like an arrow in the bush, it was a ready made trail pointer in an otherwise dark bush environment. It was also highly visible in moon-light or the light of rama (flaming torches) for travelling at night. 

This use as a trail marker also features in the legend of Rahitutakahina, the basis of the Māori ball game ‘ki-o-rahi’ which some refer to as ‘Māori rugby’. In the legend a group of patupaiarehe (forest fairy people) snatch Rahi’s wife Tiarakurapakewai (Ti Ara) from her garden. Rahi makes a manu tangata (large person carrying kite) to pursue her and does so taking Ki, a small woven basket containing a moa egg, as sustenance. The kite crashes but Rahi is able to continue his pursuit to find Ti Ara as thoughtfully she had left a trail for him to follow by bending the ends of the fern leaf to reveal their silvery white underside – eventually she is found. 

The silver fern first took on national symbol status with the 1888-1889 New Zealand Natives Rugby Tour led, coached and captained by Joe Warbrick of Ngāti Rangitihi who in choosing the silver fern as a symbol offered it with a whakatauaki, a Māori proverbial saying: 

‘Mate atu he toa, ara mai he toa’ When one warrior dies, another arises. 

‘Mate atu he tetakura, ara mai he tetakura’ When one fern dies, another emerges. 

The image this proverb paints is one of resilience, perseverance and perpetual motion, that is evident in the game of rugby, as one player is tackled another takes their place to maintain forward momentum – as one goes down another rises. 

It clearly worked for them; by the time the Natives Team dispersed at Auckland they had played 74 matches in the British Isles, 16 in Australia and 17 in New Zealand. They really were our first successful overseas delegation of New Zealand ‘Natives’ (NZ born Māori and Pakeha) travelling together under the Silver Fern. 

Thomas Rangiwahia (Tom) Ellison, of Ngāi Tahu, Kāti Māmoe and Te Atiawa, was one of the stars of that team and subsequently became a board member of the inaugural New Zealand Rugby Football Union, captaining their first tour to Australia in 1893. It is Tom who proposed to the inaugural AGM of Union that the team’s uniform be a black jersey with silver fern monogram, black cap, stockings and white shorts – inspired by the NZ Natives uniform. Apart from the change of the shorts colour to black, that is the uniform our All Blacks wear with pride today. 

In 1899 the silver fern was picked up as an emblem and carried into the Boer War on the regalia of our soldiers. The symbol of the NZ Division in WW1 and WW2 was the silver fern on a black background. It was a symbol they took considerable pride in. Where the NZ Division went, soldiers would also paint the famous white fernleaf on black symbol on clubs or bars at which NZ troops congregated, nick-named “fernleaf clubs”. 

The distinctive New Zealand FernMark, developed by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise and Tourism New Zealand in the early 1990’s, to establish a singular visual identity for New Zealand, continues the legacy left by Joe Warbrick and Tom Ellison, whether guiding and protecting our traders offshore, or guiding and protecting visitors onshore. It continues to guide and represent our national pride and prowess – New Zealanders at our very best. 

As custodians of the silver fern through the FernMark Licence Programme , the New Zealand Story Group seeks to continue and protect this legacy; which is now trademarked in 14 export markets, for future generations ‘of New Zealand’. 

‘Mate atu he tetakura, ara mai he tetakura’ When one fern dies, another emerges.