The Ferns Have It I
Bill Long 8/13/09
A Dozen Not To Miss
I used to think that a fern was just a fern. I guess I knew there were various species of fern, but I thought the differences among them must be so minute and of such little consequence aesthetically that it didn't merit my attention. But now, as I am trying to learn about as many stationary living things that I can, I look again at ferns, and I almost can't move on because of the beauty of their variety and shape. They are so diverse that they aren't even in the same family; indeed, those studied for this essay represent more than five families of living things. I found further that there are about 500 species of ferns known to us so far; I think that a good knowledge of about 30 or 40 of them ought to suffice us for now--though only about 20-25 in these essays.
In addition, I am studying them because my girlfriend and I are "re-doing" the grounds of the house, and I suggested that we should have a "fern garden." I don't know if this is a good idea (i.e., many things I read suggest that ferns should be complementary plants for different types of plants), but I have the desire to plant about 20 different species, post their names and then use them as a means into understanding more of the world. Precision and patience are two virtues I admire the most; you need them both when you examine the ferns.
Let's look briefly at about a dozen of them that I would like to include in my garden.
1.-2. I saw the Adiantum trapeziforme in the Garfield Park (Chicago) Conservatory two weeks ago and quickly fell for it. Though we all know the Adiandum pedatum, or (Northern) Maidenhair fern (pictured here), few know the trapezoidal or diamond-shaped fronds of the trapeziforme. Image is here. A picture of the entire plant is here. You can see the genus (Adiantum) shape in the thin wire-like stems and the bushy nature of the fronds. The meaning of Adiantum is interesting--"unwetted," having to do to the water-repellant petals. While we have a saying about a person's ability to take criticism--it rolls off like "water off a duck's back," we might be better served to change the image; to roll like water off an Adiantum trapeziforme fern. At least we would be catching the attention of some alert person. I may have trouble getting the trapeziforme; I think it is pretty rare.
3. There are few more arresting ferns than the "Many-fingered fern," or, get this--Dryopters filix-mas 'Linearis Polydactyla.' This is a fascinatingly unique "male fern" cultivar, and is marked by long thread-like fronds with tiny pinnae. Or, another description: it has "tall, thin and upright, deciduous, dark green fronds with alternating, very narrow, leathery leaflets that branch out to crested and multiforked tips." Here is another picture of it.
4. The Button Fern, Pellaea rotundifolia, is next. Its name means "rounded dark-stemmed," the latter in allusion to its dark-colored stipe or stem. Here is a picture of its rounded leaves and here, a wonderful close-up of its dark stem. This fern doesn't even look like a fern when placed in a flower pot. They are selling a shipment of 'em at the Ace hardware store in my town. Maybe I should get down there and buy one.
5.-6. The Deer Fern, or Blechnum spicant, is distinguished by its "spicant" feature--i.e., its unusual pointed branches. Note the "spikes" in this picture. The Deer Fern leaves/fronds aren't that distinctive (see this picture), and they resemble the fronds of a Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum) but are smaller with rounded fronds. I read that it is perfect for a shade garden, and boy do I have shade where I want to put it. In fact, I hope I don't run into too many sun-loving ferns, since just south of my chimney is the place where "the sun don't shine..."
7. The Bird's Nest Fern, Asplenium nidus, is an attractive fern without individual pinnae on the fronds or branches. The name means "without spleen," and "nesting" or "relating to a nest," and its genus name suggests its one-time medicinal use--to be a cure for spleen problems. Thus, it is popularly known as spleenwort. Here is a memorable picture of the fern.
8. Let's conclude this essay with reference to the tree want to plant, the Tasmanian Tree Fern, Dicksonia antartica. This is the first fern presented here where a personal name is the genus name. James Dickson was a Scottish naturalist of the 18th-19th centuries. We are introduced to him in one of the interesting popular series of Victorian scientific works--The Leisure Hour, Vol. 7. The Leisure Hour first appeared in 1852; vol. 7 would have been put out at the end of the decade. Dickson's name appears in a discussion of mosses, one of his special interests. The flowery language of the original is cutely entertaining:
"These mosses are, though little, magnificently and munificently beautiful. Examine one with a magnifying glass, or, better still, put under your microscope a leaf or the mouth of the cup,...and you will be astonished at their wondrous elegance and marvellous structure.....for their Creator has made them different."
Ah, we hear echoes of William Paley in the last sentence, don't we? Well, one of the collectors of mosses was Dickson, who came to London, "the all-devouring metropolis," to find employment. He found it as gardener at the British Museum gardens. He made frequent trips to Scotland to bring down some mosses. Well, the story goes on and on, and it would be entertaining if I had the leisure as the Victorians (or some of them) apparently did. But one word caught my attention; Dickson was called a cryptogamist in the piece just cited. At first when I saw the word I thought that he must have had a "secret marriage," but then, upon realizing that the word appeared in a Victorian-era publication, realized this couldn't be the case. In fact, a cryptogamist is one skilled in "crytogamic botany," which means that s/he studies the Cryptogamia, those plants (the last in the Linnaean Sexual system) which have no stamens or pistils, and therefore no proper flowers. This class includes our ferns, mosses, algae, lichens and fungi.
Well, here is a picture of what this tree fern will eventually look like; very impressive I think. It may grow fairly tall, and I would like to be a part of its life....