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Animal, vegetable or export opportunity?

Animal, vegetable or export opportunity?

They were around at the same time as the dinosaurs, early explorers thought that they were a new species of animal hybrid, they were all the rage in Victorian England, and there’s a good chance you have some growing in your garden.

The tree fern is common in New Zealand’s forests and gardens and is the subject of a new book, Tree Ferns, being released this month

Associate Professor Mark Large from Unitec’s School of Natural Sciences spent seven years writing the text, which looks at the plant’s different species and colourful history.

He says that early explorers took ferns back to Europe where they were prized for their exotic appearance, and that pattern is being repeated in modern times.

“There are about 600 different species of tree fern found in Central and South America, the Pacific, Australasia, Asia and Africa, and there is now a booming business exporting living plants to Europe.”

The otherworldly appearance that attracts gardeners today led 15th Century academics to come to some unusual conclusions, says Associate Professor Large.

“The stem of the tree fern Cibotium is very hairy and looks like the leg of an animal. When specimens were taken back to Europe, the leaves died and fell off during the trip.

“It was hypothesised that the stems came from an animal they called the vegetable lamb, which they thought grew out of the ground like a plant.”

Professor Large started researching tree ferns because of an interest in prehistoric plant life – he has also acted as a botanical consultant for the BBC television series Walking with Dinosaurs. “I was interested in paleo-botany and Jurassic fauna, and a colleague of mine when I was at Oxford University studied a species of tree fern growing on St Helena, an island in the Atlantic.

“We couldn’t figure out how this fern got there and how it was related to other species.”

That mystery is still the subject of research, he says, but it got him interested in writing about tree ferns, and his is now the only comprehensive book on the subject. “No one had ever attempted writing a book about these plants because it is such a confused and difficult topic.

“Many tree fern species were named by more than one person who thought they had discovered it, so I needed to sort through the many different names of the plants. This book is for everyone, from botanists to weekend gardeners. It is extensively illustrated with photographs of the different species and tries to cover everything.”

Tree Ferns by Mark Large and John Braggins is being published by Timber Press in the US and distributed worldwide. It goes on sale in New Zealand in late May.

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