New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2005) 29(2): 165- 184

An ecological and historical review of bracken (Pteridium esculentum) in New Zealand, and its cultural significance

Research Article
Matt S. McGlone 1,*
Janet M. Wilmshurst 1
Helen M. Leach 2
  1. Landcare Research, P.O. Box 69, Lincoln 8152, New Zealand
  2. Department of Anthropology, University of Otago, P.O. Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand
*  Corresponding author

New Zealand bracken (Pteridium esculentum) belongs to a group of closely related fern species of near global extent. Pteridium species worldwide are aggressive, highly productive, seral plants, functionally more akin to shrubs than ferns. Their deeply buried starch-rich rhizomes allow them to survive repeated fire and their efficient nutrient uptake permits exploitation of a wide range of soils. They are limited by cool annual temperatures, frost, wind, and shallow, poorly drained and acidic soils. Bracken stands accumulate large amounts of inflammable dead fronds and deep litter and often persist by facilitating fire that removes woody competitors. Bracken was present but not abundant in New Zealand before the arrival of humans. Occasional fire or other disturbances created transient opportunities for it. Rhyolitic volcanic eruptions led to short-lived expansions of bracken, and it briefly became dominant over ash-affected areas of the central North Island after the large AD 186 Taupo Tephra eruption. Andesitic eruptions had limited effects. Bracken became one of the most abundant plants in the country after the arrival of Maori in the 13th century, when massive deforestation affected most of the lowland landscape. The bracken-dominated vegetation that formed in most places immediately after burning gave way with time to fire-maintained mosaics in which bracken dominated on deeper soils and under moist, mild climates. Although Maori relied on bracken rhizome starch as a major element of their diet, food-quality rhizomes were obtained only on deep, moderately fertile soils. The dominance of bracken over very large areas was mainly a result of burning to create open landscapes for access and ease of travel. Bracken remained a troublesome weed through the European pastoral period and well into the 20th century. Bracken has a problematical role in conservation as it can form a persistent, fire-prone, low-diversity cover in drier regions. However, it is an indigenous plant that is effective in preventing erosion and, in wetter areas, it will easily suppress exotic grasses and facilitate regeneration to forest. It should be considered an essential component of landscapes conserved for their historical significance to Maori.