The spleenworts, as they are commonly known, may have an unattractive common name; but several of their number rank amongst the most beautiful, and useful, of our native ferns. That unappealing title refers to a positive quality (albeit of superstitious origins) that has historically been attributed to member of the genus; namely, a perceived capacity to treat illnesses of the spleen. Nowadays, their major cultural significance lies in their use as ornamental garden plants.
Within New Zealand, Asplenium spp. occupy many niches, from the forest floor to cliffs and treetops. The most well-known of our spleenworts is A. bulbiferum, otherwise known as the hen-and-chicken fern, or pikopiko. Unfortunately, most plants sold as this species are not even native – but rather a hybrid (Asplenium x lucrosum) with a Norfolk Island species, A. dimorphum. The only other species to have gained any significant degree of popularity as garden plants are A. oblongifolium and A. lyallii (although the exotic bird’s nest fern, Asplenium nidus, is reasonably popular as a houseplant, and occasionally outdoors).
Several other species deserve greater attention, including Asplenium gracillimum, A. lamprophyllum, A. shuttleworthianum (in northern areas), A. haurakiense and A. obtusatum. Although they are predominantly used as ground ferns for shaded areas, members of this genus also have potential as pot plants, ferns for open areas, and even as epiphytes on trees or shrubs (mimicking the natural station that some inhabit within the wild).
Although the name ‘shining spleenwort’ is applied to A. oblongifolium, it could just as appropriately be utilised for this species. The epithet ‘lamprophyllum‘ literally translates (from the Greek) as ‘shining leaf’. The foliage is noteworthy not just for its reflective qualities, but also for its vibrant light green colour and beautiful dissected framework.
A. lamprophyllum is an extremely useful plant, which forms slowly-spreading clumps of bright green ‘shuttlecocks’. It is one of our lesser-known ferns, but one of the best; due in no small part to its vibrant colour and the orderly, upright growth form (which is far preferable to the often dishevelled, floppy appearance of the most commonly-favoured ‘native’ fern, Asplenium x lucrosum).
It naturally grows within light to deep shade in forests of the North island, as far south as Wanganui (although it is more common further north). It will, however, grow further south than its natural distribution; I have observed a beautiful carpet of it thriving beneath trees at Otari Native Plant Museum in Wellington. The fact that this fern is, as yet, little known in cultivation is probably partially related to its slow growth (making it less commercially attractive to nurseries, as well as requiring more patience within gardens).