By Elizabeth Farnsworth Gazette Contributing Writer
Most people I know (including me, until quite recently) know one thing about ferns: They all look alike. But move in for a closer look, and it quickly becomes apparent that ferns are really much more complex and beautiful than we think at first. They are everywhere, greening up forest floors, meadows and rock faces even in the depths of winter. Each species has its own identity, with gorgeous fractal leaf patterns, unique shapes and interesting lifestyles.
Each summer the Connecticut River Valley comes alive with a wealth of different fern species. Special local habitats, like rocky glades and rich wet meadows, support species of ferns that are rare elsewhere in New England. Indeed, ferns can tell you a lot about a place, as many species occupy restricted ranges or environments.
A new, lustrous frond of ostrich fern unfurls in early spring. The young fiddleheads of this species are edible – delicious with a hollandaise sauce.
Are you standing up to your kneecaps in wet mud? Only a few fern species—such as sensitive fern, the aptly-named marsh fern, or the edible ostrich fern—really enjoy having their feet wet, and these are useful indicators of wetlands even where standing water is not present or where snow covers the ground. One of our more unusual wetland inhabitants is the Hartford fern, with twining, viny stems and delicate fronds the shape and size of a baby’s hand.
Or perhaps you are gazing at a vertical cliff face or a big boulder festooned in ferns. On the Mount Holyoke Range, rock polypody, rusty woodsia or smooth cliffbrake may clamber over the volcanic, mineral-rich rocks. On the mossy limestone exposures of Mount Toby, you may be lucky to spot the wonderful “walking fern,” so named because its tapering, arching fronds root at the tips and produce new colonies of baby ferns, which in turn proliferate across the rock face.
Maybe you are in a forest clearing calf-deep in a veritable field of ferns. If the frilly bright green fronds are covered with tiny, sticky white hairs and smell—when crushed—of new-mown grass, chances are you are awash in hay-scented fern. Its stout, leathery cousin, with triangular fronds a foot or more across, is bracken fern, one of the world’s most widespread plants and a common colonizer of old pastures and rocky, disturbed ground on six of the seven continents.
What makes ferns like bracken so successful and abundant? First, they get around. Their tough, tiny, lightweight spores can disperse for thousands of miles and persist patiently for years. For example, ferns were among the first and most prolific colonizers on bare rock and ash following the violent eruption of Mount Saint Helens in 1982—their spores wafting in from as far away as Japan.
Second, they’ve been at it a long time. Ferns have been around on planet Earth for more than 400 million years. We can trace the illustrious history of ferns in the fossil record and even can glimpse some fern fossils in basalt slabs around the Pioneer Valley. These hardy species, which saw the dinosaurs come and go and witnessed our human ancestors take their first tentative steps on two legs, will probably stick around for a very long time.
Even though ferns are tough, it’s much better to appreciate ferns in the wild or learn to cultivate them from spore for your garden, rather than picking or transplanting them. About a third of all fern species in the Valley are listed as rare—the victims of centuries of over-collection and habitat destruction. So have some fun, get outdoors and peer closely at these gorgeous plants. Their names are easy to learn, and you’ll soon realize how wonderfully different they are.
Elizabeth Farnsworth is Senior Research Ecologist at the New England Wild Flower Society and co- author of the Peterson Field Guide to the Ferns.
Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.Click here to return to full list of Earth Matters articles.