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( Originally Published 1907 )
To admire a fern for its beauty is one thing; to understand its life is another. To this end one must be on the alert, for the spring awakening of the ferns is highly interesting. In scientific parlance all true ferns must be "circinate in vernation"; that is, they must come from the ground rolled up like a watch spring. A grotesque lot they are, their stiff stalks pushing the woolly heads into the air with all the pertness of youth. Only an expert can recognize old friends in this guise.
Technically speaking, the stalk of a fern consists of the "stipe" and the "rachis." The former corresponds with the leaf stem or petiole of a flowering plant, while its continuation through the leafy portion of a divided frond is the rachis or midrib if the lamina (or leafy portion) is entire. This part, of course, is not ready for inspection until the segments (or pinnae) begin to unroll, hence specific peculiarity of stipe is the surest test in this early stage, although no two species are coloured or "done up" just alike.
We have a group of cinnamon ferns (Osmunda cinnamomea) before us, the wool of which fairly drips from their uncanny heads like water after a bath, looking very much as if they "needed a maternal tongue to lick them into shape." The sun and the winds kiss them, the scales part, and a miracle is performed! The stately Osmunda cinnamomea is a regal exchange for the wooly head.
The rapidity of development varies greatly in different species. Ferns of fragile texture quickly unfurl their sails, while those of heavier build are comparatively slow in assuming shape.
The spring colouring is particularly beautiful. The greenest of all green things growing are the freshly developed fronds of the oak fern (Phegopteris Dryopteris). A fine foil to this in point Of colour is the maidenhair (Adiantum pedatum), with its soft pink stalks deepening through shades of red, maturing in ebony. With the sunlight in its crown of pale pendant pinnae, we have indeed the fairy of the fern creation.
The economic value of "fern wool" or "fern cotton" is duly appreciated by the birds. Certain of the smaller kinds, such as creepers, warblers and humming birds, are on the alert for this exquisitely soft product to use in felting their nests.
The dividing line between phenogamous, or flowering, plants and cryptogamous, or flowerless, plants is one of the simplest principles of plant life, nevertheless this is the rock upon which the casual observer wrecks his botanical skiff. The "brown stuff" on the back of the frond or on the stiff, dark spikes of the onocleas is often attributed to some sort of disease, whereas it is Nature's method for perpetuating the species. In place of true seeds there are substituted tiny spores, contained in capsules, technically called "sporangia," which grow out of the veins of the leafy portion of the fronds. The socalled "fruit dot" thus formed is termed a sorus. It is this feature which so readily distinguishes the ferns from true leaves.
The classification of ferns depends largely upon the position and variation of the sori on the under sides of the full-grown fronds. Another point of importance in classification, although of less intrinsic value to the plant, is the "indusium," the thin, membranous body, more or less persistent and of various forms, which covers the sorus. Thus the genus dryopteris is characterised by round dots and shield-shaped indusia, the exact form of the latter depending largely upon its point of attachment. The asplenium family, on the contrary, has oblong or linear fruit dots with straight or, rarely, curved indusium fixed lengthwise to the upper side of the fertile vein. Nature assuredly does not serve all alike. The sturdy polypody has no cover for its spores.
A fern spore does not directly produce a fern but a small flat and thin circular or kidney-shaped body, green in colour, called the prothallus, which is attached to the soil by delicate rootlets. On this the separate reproductive organs analogous to the stamens and pistils of the ordinary flower are produced.
The individual fern is not dependent on spores alone for its perpetuation. Perennial rootstocks are the rule, not the exception, among ferns, and only hardy species make open preparation and practical arrangement for their own demise and renewal each year. Plate 3 is a typical specimen of a species which adds much lasting beauty to our highways and byways, coming into greater prominence when deciduous foliage has dropped away. Look down into the heart of the plant and you will see that the nine stipes are holding the fronds for the coming year-all tightly rolled and packed by unseen hands. The marginal shield fern (Dryopteris marginalis) is undisturbed by early winter storms, but, burdened with snow to the tips, the fronds settle close to earth, retaining their freshness and colour, but never relaxing their protecting clasp until life stirs in the springtime. When fresh young fronds unfurl their sails the tale of an evergreen fern is told.