Fabulous Ferns

Originally published October 2008

Hello everyone, I’m looking for a show of hands..! How many of you have heard of the Pteridological Society, and more to the point know its raison d’être? Well the title of this article gives it away really… Ferns! For over a hundred years the Society has been promoting the study of ferns and their relatives, the fantastically named Horsetails, Clubmosses and Quillworts. Members of the South-East Regional Group of the Society were to be seen struggling gamely through the undergrowth around the pond in Quarry Wood back in July. After sampling the fare at the Plough they had descended on our Reserve in order to scrutinise our fine specimens in what they described as ‘a very ferny quarry’.

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Ferns are, in my humble opinion, one of many groups of plants that people ‘see without looking’, possibly because they tend to blend in with the general greenery of a woodland or rural vista. However they really are worth closer inspection. Their characteristic fronds rise up from a central crown and unfurl from tight coils into a dazzling range of shapes and sizes.

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If when out walking you come across a shady glade full of ferns and your mind starts to drift back to a time when giant lizards stomped around the planet, don’t worry, you are not having a flashback to some primordial link in your ancestry. You are most probably appreciating the fact that this group of plants is one of the oldest on the planet! Horsetails (yes those bottle brush looking plants you see on the roadside) used to grow to the size of large trees and are in fact the source of much of today’s coal reserves.

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There are seven different species of fern on the Reserve with such wonderful names as Broad Buckler, Soft Shield, Lady Fern, Hart’s Tongue as well as the less appealing Scaly Male Fern! Early man was greatly puzzled by the apparent lack of seed or flower on such a conspicuous plant. He (or maybe his hard working, food gathering wife) credited it with mystical powers, claiming ferns only produced flowers and seed (invisible of course!) on Midsummer’s Eve. Now we know that ferns use spores to reproduce and the arrangement of the spore capsules, known as sporangia on the back of the leaf segments, or pinnae, (I love Latin!), is used in the identification of the different species.

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Most probably the one species of fern we are all familiar with is Bracken or Pteridium aquilinum (there I go again!). It is easy to identify with its branched fronds, as opposed to each frond starting from the ground. This plant has caused quite a headache for reserve managers up and down the country as it seems to take over a patch of land and is nigh on impossible to eradicate. This is due to an underground network of roots (rhizomes!) which spread for great distances. Part of the problem is that Bracken is no longer harvested. At one time it was used for thatching, bedding, cattle feed, human consumption and to make beer! But before we all rush down to the Plough and demand they start making use of local natural resources it should be noted that the plant is actually poisonous and neither people nor cattle lived to any great age! So, make mine a pint of Harveys please!

To finish with here is a quote from the 19th century botanist Abraham Stansfield. Before all you beautiful bloom lovers get together a lynching party for me… please, they are his words, not mine!

The bright colours of flowers are admired by the least intellectual but the beauty of form and texture of ferns requires a higher degree of mental perception and a more cultivated intellect for its proper appreciation. Hence we regard the growing taste for the cultivation of ferns as proof of mental advancement.
A. Stansfield, 1858

As always, you can ‘put me right’ at pgcrow@yahoo.com
Paul Johnson

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