Witness Post: Fern
The Pacific Northwest is a mecca for ferns and the people who love them. The green shoots congregate in clusters on the hillsides under shady deciduous trees and they are frond / fiddlehead friendly to the other plants in the forests. Not all of the ferns (nor admirers) are native, hence the mecca reference, but most have found a little bit of heaven on earth in these lush gardens. Four forest favorites are the Western Sword Fern, the Northern Maidenhair Fern, the Lady Fern and the Resurrection Fern.
Western Sword Fern
Western Sword Ferns (Polystichum munitum) are ever-abundant in the forests of the Northwestern US. In the forests and byways of Oregon they are ubiquitous. These plants are hearty, reliable, and virtually maintenance-free. They are ideal plants for the gardener who lacks a green thumb because they put up with difficult soil and manage to keep up appearances even in hot, dry weather. And although they can look pretty ratty in the spring, their deep green, leathery fronds are attractive nearly year-round. If the gardener trips off the oldest and most brown fronds each spring, new ones will shoot up to take their places.
Northern Maidenhair Fern
One of the more common Maidenhair Ferns is the Northern variety (Adiantum pedatum). It is also one of the most beautiful. All over Forest Park in Portland are acres of ferns, and along the water courses you are bound to find Maidenhair. The name, maidenhair, refers to the slender, shining black botanical stipes. A member of the Pteridaceae family, they are native moist forests in North America. The fronds come in fives, and the green leaves alternate on each side for the length of the stipe. It is sometimes called the five finger fern.
In the spring the Northern Maidenhair Fern grows from one foot tall to nearly three feet tall and it is deciduous, dying back in the late fall. It favors humus-rich, moist, and well-drained soil. It can also grow on rock faces and ledges, when there is adequate moisture present.
Lady Ferns (Athyrium filix-femina) is one of the softest and most graceful native perennial ferns in the Northern forest. It is elegant and upright, reaching for two feet to five feet in height. The leaves are bright green, with a fine-textured lacy appearance. The single fronds measure up to one foot wide and three feet in length. They are native to the entirely of North America, from the continental US to Canada and Alaska.
This fern is always a lovely addition to the moist shade gardens, as the lacy light green foliage provides a striking contrast to the other wide, dark-leaved shade tolerant plants of the woods. As a perennial it is easy to grow and it colonizes through rhizones for slow steady growth. It typically forms clumps or groups of plants, but can spread to over seven feet in diameter.
The fern drops its fronds with the first frost of the fall season and remains dormant until after frost in the spring. The Lady Fern is relatively tolerant of the dun and dry soil, compared with other ferns. It is a nice ground cover plant on the north and east facing slopes of yards and buildings. The Lady Fern is a very low maintenance plant that adds a lot of esthetic value to the landscape.
One of the most dramatic “life and death” cycles in the fern world is that of the Resurrection Fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides).It lives on the surface of trees and is surrounded by mosses. The fern is an epiphyte, which means that it grows in trees, as if in the air, with the host plant being damaged. The nutrients and water collect in the moss and the fern feeds from those sources, shriveling up when it is dry and being born again when the rains come. In the Pacific Northwest, those rains are three seasons, with only the hot summers as dry spells, and apparent death.
The Resurrection Fern seems to have extraordinary tolerance to drought, withstanding up to 97% water loss. Most plants, even the drought tolerant ones, start to die back after a loss of 10%, however, the Resurrection Fern shrivels up its leaves and appears dead. It is dormant and can “come back to life” even after years of dryness.
The Resurrection Fern was believed by the Florida Seminoles to help in the treatment of insanity. We all could use a dose of that from time to time. The Fern was also taken on the space shuttle Discovery as part of its mission in 1997. The scientists wanted to better understand the natural phenomena from the perspective of space.
Dry fronds respond to being sprayed with water in under an hour, so it’s also a fun science experiment to show kids! Water bottle anyone?