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Ferns and Man in New Guinea

by Jim Croft ( )

[ based on a paper presented to Papua New Guinea Botany Society, 1982 ]

Summary Introduction Food Medicine Construction Fibre Abrasives Decoration Weeds References Appendix


Ferns important to man in New Guinea
Ferns as food
- Starches - Greens - Condiments, Flavourings
Ferns as medicine
- Fractures - Boils, ulcers, wounds - Fevers, headaches, colds, etc.
- Stomach pains - Menstruation, childbirth, contraception - Diseases
Ferns as handicraft and construction material
Ferns as fibre
Ferns as abrasives
Ferns as decoration and ritual items
Ferns as weeds
- Ferns and their allies used by or affecting man in Papuasia


Over 90 species in 42 genera of ferns that are used by man, or affect him in some way or other, are found in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Their use and importance as food, medicine, structural and aesthetic material, weeds, pests and items of traditional ritual significance is discussed and compared with other regions. Both beneficial and undesirable species are included.


The Pteridophytes, or the ferns and their allies, are thought by most people to be quite useless members of the Plant Kingdom, or at best they are considered to be of limited horticultural importance, fads that climaxed in the Victorian era about a century ago and now the exclusive domain of dilettante collectors, botanists and other anachronisms. No vast fortunes are to be made from the culture of any of the species, and the only time the general population is likely to take notice is when a fern becomes an aggressive and successful weed.

The deleterious effects of rapid fern growth are well publicised, but their useful aspects are largely ignored. However, in agricultural societies, especially those using the forests directly, like most in New Guinea, the value of ferns is more keenly appreciated. Ferns are found to provide food, medicine (sometimes of dubious value), fibre, craft and building material, abrasives and of course decoration. In gardens and plantations many species are known as competitive weeds and in the forests and clearings obstructive species often block the way. A survey of literature and specimens reveals that there are no fewer than 90 species in 42 genera that affect man in one way or another.

A review of the uses of Pteridophytes throughout the world listing about 150 different situations in which fern species have been used was published by May (1978). Unfortunately, this review does not deal specifically with New Guinea and does not take into account much of the anthropological literature that has been published concerning New Guinea over the years, nor the information contained among the field notes of some of the New Guinea collections.

Powell (1976b) provides a detailed summary of the ethnobotany of New Guinea and lists many references to pteridophytes; unfortunately most of these records have been extracted from anthropological literature and are based on unreliable or incomplete identification. Thus, often all that can be said is that a fern of uncertain identity was used for a particular purpose. Nevertheless, these and similar records have been included in the present review so that future investigations might reveal the identity of the species involved.

The present review is based on personal observation throughout Papua New Guinea, information contained in specimens in the Papua New Guinea National Herbarium (Herb. LAE), and on the botanical and anthropological literature available at LAE.

The review is in two parts: firstly, a list of the ethnobotanic uses or affects of ferns in New Guinea with notes on the species involved and, secondly, as Appendix I, an alphabetic list of the species that are used by man or that affect him directly or indirectly. Comparisons are made with the relationships to man in other regions of these or similar species.

Ferns Important to Man in New Guinea

Ferns as food

There are three types of fern food available in New Guinea: starches, greens, and additives.

Ferns as medicine

This is a very nebulous aspect of the way ferns affect man. While it cannot be denied that the species are (or have been) used in the manner described, it is most likely that the effects, if any, are psychological rather than physiological. Nevertheless, such information should be recorded, even though it may be unreliably based on superstitution, misconception, fraud or charlatanism, because in some cases the plants are found to contain active substances that affect the body, although not necessarily in the manner claimed.

A review of the medicinal uses of all plants in New Guinea (Holdsworth 1977) contained only nine species of pteridophytes, most if not all of them of dubious value. The fronds are taken internally or applied externally, or the roots or stems are taken internally. Those applied externally are almost certainly only a placebo as any other pile of green leaves could be expected to have the same effect.

Ferns as handicraft and construction material

The stems and rachises of ferns are often reinforced with strong sclerotic vascular strands, or the outer layer of the stem itself is extremely tough and durable - this is especially so in climbing species. This durability of the structural parts of ferns makes them attractive for certain building or craft applications where similar materials from flowering plants would decompose quickly.

In the highlands of New Guinea the common grassland tree ferns at middle altitudes (Cyathea magna, C. angiensis, C. contaminans) are used as picket fences for gardens and as posts on which huts are built. These tree ferns are very common in the grasslands and in disturbed areas such as abandoned garden sites. After the fern dies the pulpy pith collapses but the sclerotic strands are very strongly developed and in the lower half at least the trunk is covered with a dense fibrous sheath of tightly interlocking sclerotic roots which provides substantial support for the trunk which commonly attains heights of over 5 m. The structural elements of the tree fern trunks are very durable, even in permanent contact with the ground, being immune from attack from nearly all decay-causing organisms. For fences the trunks are planted upside down, next to each other in a row, and lashed together to form a pallisade to keep out pigs. For house posts the trunks are also planted upside down and then a deep notch is cut in the wider fibrous end to receive the floor joists. The fibrous bases of the trunks are sometimes incorporated in the house ridge poles or centre poles so that they extend out from the roof; they are then decorated with various species of ferns or orchids. Less commonly they are carved with designs or faces.

The scrambling climber Lygodium is used throughout the lowland regions of New Guinea as a binding and lashing twine. All species of the genus have an elongate climbing rachis that has the capacity for indefinite growth often reaching lengths of several metres. It is of uniform diameter and extremely tough, wiry and durable. All species would be suitable for binding but the most common and widely used is Lygodium circinnatum. In coastal areas, in the absence of commercial synthetic rope, it is used for the tying of floats to outriggers and other lashing requirements on canoes. However, the best known use of Lygodium stems is in the finely woven basket ware, originally from the Bougainville area and known as "Buka baskets", a technique now copied in many parts of the country.

In the central highlands the stems of Cyclosorus and Dicranopteris are used for lashings on houses and those of Gleichenia brassii are used for heavy lashing such as on pig fences (Powell 1976b).

Ferns as fibre

The terrestrial fern Cystodium sorbifolium produces a dense crop of golden-yellow hairs at the base of the stipe. These hairs are smooth, soft and silky, yet quite resilient. In some areas (eg. Manus, Milne Bay) these fibres have been used for stuffing pillows, although these days kapok (Ceiba pentandra) fibres are mostly used as considerably less effort is required to harvest a pillow-full.

The other type of fern-fibre is the fibrous root-encrusted trunks of tree ferns. The trunks with larger amounts of fibre are harvested, planted upside down in decorative gardens (mostly in the urban areas) and used as a substrate for certain types of epiphytic ferns and orchids. Often the fibre is cut off in slabs to be used for a similar purpose; the crushed fibre is also used as a growing medium. In some countries there is a regular industry established around the supply of tree fern fibre to horticulturists but in New Guinea this has not happened yet. In New Zealand a small, cottage-scale industry has developed around the production of lamp stands and bases turned from the trunks of Cyathea on a wood lathe; the turning reveals the intricate interwoven design of the dark structural material of the trunk and leaf gaps. This is an industry that would lend itself to village communities in Papuasia, but has not yet been introduced.

Ferns as abrasives

Throughout New Guinea the scouring rush Equisetum debile is used to clean cooking and eating utensils. The stems of this plant accumulate crystals of silica and the fine abrasive action of these crystals make it a useful cleaning agent. The sandpaper-like qualities of Equisetum lead to its use in shaping and smoothing tools, ornaments and weapons. This has been noted by Powell (1976) in the southern highlands and by Hide (1974, spec in LAE) in the eastern highlands.

Ferns as decorations and ritual items

In New Guinea ferns are used to decorate both houses and grounds, and bodies for ceremonial purposes.

In the central highlands of Papua New Guinea it is quite common for the basket-like clumps of the epiphytic fern Drynaria rigidula to be impaled on a wooden spike arising from the centre or end of the thatch roof. Unintentional decoration occurs in the wetter areas at middle altitudes where the thatch roofs support a luxurious crop of such ferns as Belvisia mucronata, Microsorium cromwellii, Selliguea ? werneri, etc. and assorted mosses.

In urban gardens ornamental ferns are especially common. Occasionally tree ferns (Cyathea contaminans and C. felina in the lowland areas and Cyathea magna in the highlands areas) are grown, or at least encouraged. The magnificent staghorn fern (Platycerium wandae) is grown in low to middle altitudes in areas wherever the species occurs naturally. The common bird's nest ferns, Asplenium nidus and A. musifolium, are present in most gardens in lowland areas. Similarly nearly every garden has plants of Nephrolepis (several species) and Pityrogramma calomelanos (the silver-backed fern), although these are present as reasonably attractive weeds rather than actively encouraged. Many gardens support introduced ornamentals such as the maiden-hair ferns (Adiantum cuneatum, A. tenerum, A. trapeziforme and cultivars), and various cultivars of Nephrolepis and Phlebodium aureum.

Ferns are often used as personal decoration, either casually or for ceremonial occasions. Wagner and Grether (1948) report Selaginella being used as casual adornment by carriers on Manus and I have seen the apical branches of Dicranopteris used there for the same purpose. Powell (1976) reports from the Huli region of the southern highlands a species of epiphytic Lycopodium is used as head-dress ornamentation on ceremonial occasions, and notes that species of Lycopodium are used elsewhere on ceremonial occasions (Rappaport 1967). In the Mt Wilhelm area of the Chimbu Province the villagers collect the elongate scaley fronds of the alpine fern Polystichum linearis and tie the apical part into a tight flat coil which is used to decorate the hair. The silver-backed fern Pityrogramma calomelanos, with its striking contrast between the dark green upper surface and the bright white under surface, is also used for body decoration (Croft in press).

Powell (1976) notes that the fronds of a species of Nephrolepis are used ritually in the southern highlands at the death ceremonies of close relatives, being placed among the bones.

"Bullroarers" are made from the woody parts of the trunks of the common tree fern Cyathea contaminans and used on ceremonial occasions (Powell 1976b). Woven waistbands and arm bands are made from the rachises of Dicranopteris linearis and Gleichenia hirta in the central highlands.

Ferns as weeds

Perhaps the most dangerous and troublesome weed in New Guinea today is a fern - Salvinia molesta. This floating aquatic was introduced, possibly as an aquarium ornamental, and has become established in the slow-moving water bodies of the Sepik River and in some of the swamps around Port Moresby (Anon. 1980; Mitchell 1979a, b; Richards 1979). This plant has long been known as a pest in other tropical and subtropical countries (Anon. 1979, Kleinschmidt 1973, Wild 1961). It reproduces rapidly by vegetative division, quickly covering large bodies of relatively still water, making water transport difficult or impossible and smothering all the fish. It is virtually impossible to remove as each individual leaf has the capacity to form a new plant and recolonise the area; thus eradication or control by physical removal is a difficult or impossible task, although even large bodies of water can be kept relatively free of the weed by diligent and persistent effort. Similarly, spraying large areas with herbicides such as Paraquat has been unsuccessful in the long term, as well as very expensive. It seems that the most likely control of this pest will be by biological means with the introduction of some successful predator (Henty & Pritchard 1982); there has recently been a very successful eradication program on a lake near Mt Isa, Queensland, where the predator, a weevil introduced from South America, completely wiped out the heavy Salvinia infestation, then died out as a result.

The terrestrial fern weeds (eg. Pteridium, Sphaerostephanos, Christella, Nephrolepis) are also especially troublesome because of their habit of spreading widely and rapidly by long, creeping rhizomes. A notable exception is the common weed Pityrogramma calomelanos or "silver-backed fern" which relies on producing vast quantities of minute spores, capable of dispersing long distances and becoming quickly established in newly available habitats, such as along roads or recently cleared areas. It has been reported as a nuisance weed in oil-palm plantations in tropical central-west Africa (Wardlaw 1962). Originally from South America it has spread throughout the tropical regions of the world within the last 120 years (Schelpe 1975, Panigrahi 1975) and is presently spreading rapidly in New Guinea (Croft in press). The bracken fern Pteridium aquilinum is also capable of rapid colonisation of bare ground by the establishment of numerous sporelings, especially after fire (Gliessman 1978) and this is a particular problem in tropical regions where the burning of grasslands is common practice.

In the first edition of the definitive work on the weeds of New Guinea (Henty & Pritchard 1973), not a single fern is mentioned as being a significant weed, being overshadowed by more significant and annoying pests. In the second edition (Henty & Pritchard 1975) they mentioned only one fern weed, the common bracken Pteridium aquilinum; Salvinia was not mentioned as it had not come to the attention of agriculturists at that time. No mention was made of the common nuisance ferns of plantations and gardens, primarily because these are generally not dangerous to stock or crops. They can, however, hinder the efficient running of a plantation. In the third and latest edition (Henty and Pritchard 1982), Salvinia molesta is included as well as one of the most common weeds of coconut plantations, Sphaerostephanos (Cyclosorus) unitus, with a brief note on the related fern Christella (Cyclosorus) arida. These weeds can be eradicated by the application of a variety of herbicides, but mechanical destruction by slashing, rolling, or trampling by livestock is very effective, the repeated breaking of the young fronds eventually killing the plant (White 1935, Henty & Pritchard 1982).

In his book on the toxic plants of Papua New Guinea, Henty (1980) mentions two poisonous ferns: Cheilanthes tenuifolia and Pteridium aquilinum. The reports of toxicity of the former are based on Australian literature and probably refer to Cheilanthes sieberi which appears not to occur in Papuasia. Similarly, the toxicity of bracken (Pteridium spp.) is based on Australian and European reports of prolonged feeding on the fern inducing thiamine deficiency (Everist 1974). Both Pteridium aquilinum and Pteridium esculentum occur in New Guinea and in some areas are very common; however, there have been no authenticated reports of Pteridium poisoning of livestock although the animals seem to do poorly in areas heavily infested with bracken (Henty pers. comm.).


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Appendix I

Ferns and their Allies used by or Affecting Man in Papuasia

Note: species marked with an asterisk (*) have not been authenticated and are suspected of being unreliably named.

Taxon Uses Area References
Adiantum cuneatum urban ornamental urban centres
Adiantum tenerum urban ornamental urban centres
Adiantum trapeziforme urban ornamental urban centres
Angiopteris evecta fronds bound to fractured limb southern highlands Scheifenhovel 1970
Angiopteris evecta various rituals and magic Jimi valley Powell 1976b
Arthropteris palisotii fronds worn around neck Kukukuku Powell 1976b
Asplenium acrobryum ash of dried fronds used as salt Huon Peninsula, central & western highlands Freund et al. 1965, Croft in press
Asplenium affine* fronds a wild food supplement Watut valley Powell 1976b
Asplenium musifolium urban ornamental urban centres
Asplenium nidus urban ornamental urban centres
Asplenium sp. fronds a wild food supplement Watut valley, eastern highlands Powell 1976b
Blechnum orientale new fronds eaten to induce sterility in women Mt Koiari, Central Province Holdsworth et al.
Blechnum sp. young fronds eaten as wild food supplement Wissel Lakes (W New Guinea) Powell 1976b
Ceratopteris thalictroides a fern vegetable, not widely used in Papuasia S.E. Asia, Bismarck Archipelago **1980b**
Cheilanthes tenuifolia fronds toxic to stock in Australia seasonal lowland areas Henty 1980
Ctenitis sp.* young fronds eaten Powell 1976b
Cyathea young fronds of several species boiled and eaten with or without other vegetables central highlands
Cyathea trunks used as durable fence or house posts, also as decorative ridge poles, etc. central highlands, Manus
Cyathea fibrous trunks used as substrate for orchids, etc. urban centres
Cyathea several species grown as urban ornamentals urban centres
Cyathea angiensis young fronds boiled and eaten Jimi valley Powell 1976b
Cyathea contaminans fence/house posts central highlands, Manus
Cyathea contaminans substrate for ornamental plants urban areas
Cyathea contaminans urban ornamental lowland & highland urban centres
Cyathea contaminans young fronds boiled and eaten New Britain Powell 1976b
Cyathea contaminans bull roarers made from woody part of trunk Watut valley, Western Province Powell 1976b
Cyathea magna fence/house posts central highlands
Cyathea magna urban ornamental highland and urban centres
Cyathea rubiginosa* young fronds boiled and eaten Jimi valley Powell 1976b
Cyathea sangirensis fence/house posts central highlands
Cyathea sangirensis substrate for ornamental plants urban centres
Cyathea sangirensis urban ornamental lowland urban centres
Cyathea sp. fishing spear New Britain Powell 1976b
Cyathea spp. young fronds boiled and eaten Jimi valley, Wissel Lakes, Tari, Mt Hagen, Kainantu Powell 1976b
Cyclosorus sp.* poultice of boiled fronds applied to sores New Britain Powell 1976b
Cyclosorus sp.* extract of crushed fronds drunk to treat fever Mt Hagen Powell 1976b
Cyclosorus sp.* treatment of coughs Northern Province Powell 1976b
Cyclosorus sp.* fronds used for wrapping food Chimbu Powell 1976b
Cystodium sorbifolium rhizome hairs used for stuffing pillows, etc. Manus
Dennstaedtia spp.* young fronds boiled and eaten Jimi valley, New Britain, Wissel Lakes (W New Guinea) Powell 1976b
Dicranopteris linearis fronds bound externally onto wounds New Britain Futscher 1959
Dicranopteris linearis black core of stem woven into arm bands, belts Jimi valley Powell 1976b
Dicranopteris several spp. casual adornment Manus
Diplazium asperum young fronds boiled and eaten Watut valley Powell 1976b
Diplazium cordifolium* young fronds boiled and eaten Watut valley, eastern highlands Powell 1976b
Diplazium esculentum young fronds boiled and eaten with or without other vegetables most low and middle altitude areas in Papuasia
Diplazium sp. young fronds boiled and eaten Jimi valley Powell 1976b
Diplazium sp. fronds boiled and eaten as vegetable Sepik River Leach in press
Diplazium sp. (Athyrium) used in the treatment of sores Northern Province Powell 1976b
Drynaria rigidula village and urban ornamental lowland & highland areas
Dryopteris arbuscula* young fronds eaten Watut valley Powell 1976b
Dryopteris milneana* roots applied to boils, ulcers, arrow wounds Bougainville Blackwood 1935
Dryopteris sparsa* young fronds eaten Watut valley, eastern highlands Powell 1976b
Dryopteris sp.* (?=Thelyp.) abortifacient New Ireland Peekel 1910
Equisetum debile stems used as an abrasive for cleaning cooking utensils, and for shaping tools, weapons, etc. highland & lowland areas Powell 1976, Hide 1974
Gleichenia brassii rachis used for heavy tying, eg. fence posts Mt Hagen Powell 1976b
Gleichenia sp. young fronds eaten highlands area Powell 1976b
Helminthostachys zeylanica a fern vegetable, not widely used in New Guinea S.E. Asia, Sepik River Copeland 1942, Leach in press
Lomagramma sinuata fronds boiled and eaten as vegetable Sepik River Leach in press
Lycopodium clavatum emetic, induces vomiting Philippines Quisumbing 1951
Lycopodium sp. chewed to induce vomiting after food poisoning central highlands Holdworth & Giheno 1975
Lycopodium sp. stems used in ceremonial head-dress southern highlands, other regions Powell 1967, 1976b
Lycopodium sp. medical rituals Mt Hagen, Jimi valley Powell 1976b
Lycopodium spp. young shoots Powell 1976b
Lygodium most species suitable for binding & lashing most lowland regions
Lygodium circinatum lashing on canoes, weapons, etc. most lowland areas Powell 1976b
Lygodium circinatum fine basketware Bougainville
Lygodium longifolium* fronds chewed with ash salt to cure stomach ache and diarrhoea central highlands Holdsworth & Giheno 1975
Lygodium sp. draught of crushed leaves to cure leprosy Dobu Island, Milne Bay Holdsworth 1974
Lygodium spp. rachis woven into conical plunge traps to catch shoal fish in shallow water Powell 1976b
Marattia sp. swollen caudex used as starvation food highland & lowland areas
Marsilea starch prepared from fruit of Australian spp. not used in Papuasia
Microlepia speluncae leaves boiled and eaten as vegetable Sepik River Leach in press
Microsorium commutatum* young fronds boiled and eaten Watut, eastern highlands Powell 1976b
Microsorium irioides* young fronds boiled and eaten Watut, eastern highlands Powell 1976b
Microsorium linguaeforme* young fronds boiled and eaten Watut, eastern highlands Powell 1976b
Nephrolepis several species and cultivars used as urban ornamentals urban centres
Nephrolepis biserrata urban ornamental, also prolific weed lowland & midland urban centres
Nephrolepis biserrata* roots pounded to flour Frederik-Hendrik Island (W New Guinea) Powell 1976b
Nephrolepis biserrata leaves boiled and eaten as vegetable Sepik River Leach in press
Nephrolepis duffii urban ornamental lowland urban centres
Nephrolepis falcata urban ornamental, also prolific weed lowland & midland urban centres
Nephrolepis hirsuta urban ornamental, also prolific weed lowland & midland urban centres
Nephrolepis sp. fronds placed among bones in death ceremonies southern highlands Powell 1976
Orthiopteris sp. fronds boiled and eaten as vegetable Sepik River Leach in press
Phlebodium aureum urban ornamental lowland urban centres
Pityrogramma calomelanos urban ornamental, potential weed lowland & midland areas Croft in press
Pityrogramma calomelanos tips of fronds used in head-dress Morobe Province Croft in press
Pityrogramma calomelanos used as a poultice(?) Morobe Province
Platycerium wandae urban ornamental lowland & midland urban centres
Pneumatopteris (Cyclosorus) sogerensis young fronds boiled and eaten Jimi valley, New Britain, Watut, Sepik River Powell 1976b, Leach in press
Polypodium sp.* plant burned and smoke inhaled to relieve nasal and throat inflammation Mt Hagen Powell 1976b
Polypodium sp.* fronds used in death ceremonies Tari Powell 1976b
Polystichum linearis fronds curled up and used in head-dress Mt Wilhelm
Polystichum sp. crushed hot frond applied to groin swelling Mt Hagen Powell 1976b
Pronephrium menisciicarpon* fronds applied to boils, ulcers, arrow wounds Bougainville Blackwood 1935
Pteridium aquilinum weed of pastures, toxic to stock lowland & highland areas Henty & Pritchard 1982
Pteridium aquilinum sap from petiole relieves toothache, etc. Mt Hagen Powell 1976b
Pteridium aquilinum various ritual & magic ceremonies Chimbu Powell 1976b
Pteris ensiformis fronds applied to boils, ulcers, arrow wounds Bougainville Blackwood 1935
Pteris ensiformis fronds used to control menstruation Bougainville Blackwood 1935
Pteris moluccana young fronds boiled and eaten, roots pounded to flour Watut, eastern highlands Powell 1976b
Pteris tripartita fronds taken internally during childbirth Bougainville Blackwood 1935
Salvinia molesta aquarium ornamental urban centres
Salvinia molesta noxious weed congesting waterways Sepik River, Port Moresby Mitchell 1979, Henty & Pritchard 1982
Selaginella caudata whole plant used as a broom New Britain Powell 1976b
Selaginella flabellata feverish headaches, menstruation; leaves applied externally, roots taken internally Bougainville Blackwood 1935
Selaginella flabellata leaves used to control menstruation Bougainville Blackwood 1935
Selaginella opaca young leaves boiled and eaten Chimbu Powell 1976b
Selaginella sp. casual adornment Manus Wagner & Grether 1948
Sphaerostephanos (Cyclosorus) unitus nuisance weed of pastures and plantations lowland and highland areas Henty & Pritchard 1982
Sphaerostephanos (Cyclosorus) unitus stems used for lashing in house construction Tari Powell 1976b
Sphaerostephanos (Cyclosorus) sp. fronds boiled and eaten as vegetable Sepik River Leach in press
Stenochlaena palustris young fronds boiled and eaten with or without other vegetables Manus, Lake Kutubu, Sepik River Powell 1976b, Leach in press
Thelypteris sp.* young fronds boiled and eaten Wissel Lakes (W New Guinea) Powell 1976b

Updated November 1999 by Jim Croft ( )