Greenspace: Ferns -- ancient but modern

Jim Hillibish

When you encounter a growth of ferns in the forest, you witness the symmetry of mother nature. They are among the most interesting of plants. Nothing looks like them, or acts like them.

These guys have been busy surviving. They are the oldest plants on earth. About 400 million years ago, they made the big leap from ocean to land, and they liked what they found. At that time, there were few plants surviving out of water. Ferns found little competition and thrived in all climates from tundra to tropical.

They were among the first plants with a vascular system to transport water and nutrients from roots to foliage via a system of veins. Now they all do that.

It only took about 50 million years, and half the plants on earth were ferns. In the tropics, they grew into 50-foot trees. In volcanic regions, they were the first plants to recover. Great carpets of ferns covered our area.

The Carboniferous Period (354 to 290 million years ago) is the Age of Ferns. The fossil proof is everywhere. Coal, oil and gas primarily got their carbon from rotted stands of ancient ferns.

So do the dinosaurs. In their Mesozoic Era, ferns were an important food source. Whatever killed the dinosaurs did not halt the ferns.

So we have a true historical giant in our yards and houseplant collections, much earlier than history. Not even the Ice Age 50,000 years ago stopped them.

Granted, they’ve undergone changes. There’s evidence that early ferns produced seeds. Somewhere along the time line, they switched to spore propagation. Competition from other newcomer plants decreased their size.

Still, ferns always have had fronds, always have grown in clumps and still procreate like maniacs.

Compact Boston ferns were considered high fashion in the drawing rooms of Victorian mansions. The fern’s quiet grace is consoling. For this reason, funeral baskets often contain ferns. With a little care, they seem to be immortal.

You have the choice of more than 400 fern varieties. Some live only indoors. Others are hardy enough to take our coldest winters and most scorching summers. They grow in poor soil and in rich. They thrive in full sun, partial sun and deep shade. They have no predators. They will soon fill a large space, or stay confined to a few square feet in a busy garden.

Ferns are a triple threat propagator. Their most common reproduction comes from rhizomes, thin roots that spread underground and sprout fronts through the soil. When the rhizomes thicken, they form roots that spread. As if that’s not enough, ferns produce spores under their fronds, little brown sacs containing almost microscopic seeds. They dry and blow off on the winds far from the mother plant to create a new stand.

The spores look shocking. They are neat lines of dots, hundreds of them, under the fronds. They look like some manner of terrible insect infestation. Not to worry.

Ferns never learned to be common plants. Instead of sprouting, some send out weird, coiled shoots called fiddleheads. In droughts, ferns will sacrifice everything for their roots. The plant will curl up and look dead. Then it rains, and everything comes back to life in a few days.

With any other plant, that would be surprising. Nothing is surprising in the fern world.

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