If New Zealand is to choose a flag with a silver fern, could we at least make sure it IS a silver fern?

My ancestor, Thomas Ellison, was the first New Zealand rugby captain and he was instrumental in the silver fern design on the 'all black' uniform. He toured Britain in 1888-1889 as part of the New Zealand Native rugby team, the first New Zealand representative side of any sport to tour the Mother Country.

They chose a black jersey with a silver fern on the chest.

Great effort was taken with the design. The silver fern was highly sought after by botanists in Victorian England. The design, therefore, had to depict a silver fern so clearly that it could not be confused with any other type of fern, or a white feather - the symbol of cowardice.


The silver fern is unique in two ways: the colour of its reverse side and its botanical divisions (pinnates).

A silver fern has three degrees of scale - its branches, leaves and leaflets - each containing a similar shape but in different proportions. Those closely grouped pinna are almost symmetrical.

Maori marvelled at the artistry of nature in the silver fern. The maturing and unfurling fern has been adapted in wood carvings as a koru.

The huia's black, white-tipped feather is a symbol of rank and mana.

If we are to recognise our history and use national symbols, we ought to get them right. Kyle Lockwood's silver fern is a generic, two-divisional plant fern that can be found on every continent.

I can understand various representative bodies adapting the silver fern for their brand. I saw a silver fern shape made out of oars to represent a national rowing team, which is understandable. But having a silver fern design on a national flag that bears little resemblance to an actual silver fern is just sloppy.

Imagine if the Canadian flag had a maple leaf that looked more like an oak leaf. It is a travesty that New Zealanders seem so apathetic about putting a generic fern on our flag.

There is an often overlooked reason why a silver fern appears on a black background.


The silver fern reflected moonlight for warriors trekking through the bush.

The silver fern is also a symbol of welcome and belonging. It is often waved to greet visitors on to a marae and worn on the head at tangi.

The silver fern is our laurel leaf, which British and other European cultures incorporate in their heraldry. Black is the mutual colour of respect and status. Hence, to Maori and Europeans, the silver fern and black are mutually recognised and unifying.

These symbolic values combined have become our national icon. The two work together and must work together. Any suggestion of a mish-mash of symbols and colours to water down the combination of these two powerful symbols is ignorant and insulting.

To add further insult, the Flag Consideration Panel overlooked the one design that bothered to research history and botany. The designers of that flag, nicknamed The Black and Silver, respectfully consulted me and other Maori, botanists, academics and historians.

The Black and Silver is largely based on the ribbon and medal of the New Zealand War Service Medal, which all returned servicemen from World War II received. That medal's design resonated with soldiers and, in many ways, those soldiers were the bearers of our nationhood when we gained independence from Britain soon after their return. That medal had a white and black striped ribbon based on the two huia feathers that Maori of mana wore in their hair. The medal contained a silver fern at centre stage.

The Black and Silver flag's fern is a stylised version of the original silver fern designed by Thomas Ellison. It is simple, elegant, and undeniably a silver fern.

We have a proud heritage worth defending. That's why I see it as my role to guard those icons from being insulted. I am the kaitiaki (guardian) of The Black and Silver.

• David Ellison is a Kai Tahu upoko and retired soldier and educator.