A recurring feature of the flag debate, most recently expressed by Mike Hosking, is the sense that the fern is the appropriate symbol to 'really say New Zealand'.
This may be so, but if we are to have the mature debate on the flag that Hosking is asking for, we need to be aware that our present response to fern symbolism springs from the depths of our colonial past.
Few people today have heard of Pteridomania, the fern craze, but our Victorian forebears had it badly. In her 2012 book Fern Fever, Sarah Whittingham shows how it started when a Dr Ward invented a sealed glass container that recycled a plant's condensation, and allowed specimens to be protected through long sea voyages. By the 1830's it was possible to bring ferns to Britain from all around the world, and an 1837 book called An Analysis of the British Ferns and their Allies triggered widespread popular interest.
Pteridomania coincided with the heyday of the Victorian 'language of flowers' in which ferns symbolise 'fascination'. Having such a romantic association certainly helped fan fascination for ferns. By the 1850s it had developed into fully-blown middle-class collecting craze - one that would last for over forty years.
During it, Scotland and Wales had their stocks of rare ferns depleted, people died trying to reach specimens on cliff faces, and a number of places vied for the title of 'land of ferns'. But it was New Zealand that made the title its own.
Botanists like William Colenso were able to show that New Zealand had large numbers of ferns, and early colonists were quick to capitalise on this drawcard. New Zealand newspaper reports show that by the 1860's people were sending 'fern cards' back home, and the larger ferns became a staple of New Zealand's celebratory decorations.
Even in the Edwardian period, ferns featured prominently in greetings postcard imagery. By 1934, a correspondent to the New Zealand Herald was able to cite a number of reasons for the fern being seen as our national emblem, noting that we were called the 'land of ferns,' that the fern had been used to market our food, that it had been worn with distinction by our athletes, and that 100,000 New Zealand First World War soldiers had been proud to be called 'fernleaves'.
All this demonstrates that New Zealand has a very long history of using the fern to represent itself. However it also helps explain why we chose the fern rather than other possible plants. Ferns were a good symbol because they carried kudos back in England. Being a land of ferns helped early colonists raise their profile at 'Home' because the fern carried meaning in the 'Motherland'.
In his opinion piece, Mike Hosking makes a very important point. A flag has to both talk about 'what we want to say about ourselves' and 'what sort of message we want to send'. The debate I have seen thus far has had much to say on the former and little about the latter.
We seem to be considerably more concerned with defining ourselves than with thinking about how we communicate who we are to others (surely a crucial function of the flag). It is quite clear that the fern has meaning to us. In fact it carries with it a lot more of our colonial past than we perhaps have realised.
However, we also need to ask what message the fern sends to others. There is no longer a fern fever abroad to give the fern a symbolic boost. And many countries have ferns. Is the fern going to carry the associations to others that we give it ourselves? Can putting a fern on the flag succeed in claiming the fern for New Zealand once and for all? At the very least we need to find out what the fern means to others before we commit to it.
Peter Gilderdale is a senior lecturer in design history and theory at AUT.