o The Ferns of West Virginia

One of the most frequently overlooked groups of plants in the woods are ferns. In West Virginia, there are over 50 different species of ferns. I can't claim to be an expert in fern identification and thats not because they are difficult. I just haven't had the time to really study them to the depths that I would like to. Perhaps when I grow up.

Certainly the most widespread fern is Polystichum acrostichoides, or the Christmas fern. Why do folks call this fern the Christmas fern? you ask. Well, there are two reasons and they both involve the individual pinnae or leaf blades on the frond. If you hold them horizontally, they resemble Santa Claus on his sled. If you hold them vertically, they resemble a Christmas stocking. C'mon kids, a little imagination goes a long way here.

My favorite genus of ferns is Osmunda. This genus is named for Osmunder, the Saxon equivalent of the god Thor. There are three species of Osmunda in the genus.

Osmunda claytoniana or the interrupted fern is quite interesting. The sterile fronds (meaning the ones that are not spore bearing) grow for a while and then stop, produce spore bearing fertile pinnae and then start growing in the sterile mode again. Osmunda claytoniana is found in a wide variety of habitats throughout the state.

Osmunda regalis or the royal fern can be easily identified as it produces its fertile spores at the tip of its fronds. Osmunda regalis is found in moist and swampy places throughout the state. Osmunda regalis reproduces quite quickly by rhizome (underground stems) and by spore....but more on fern sex later.

Osmunda cinnamomea known as the cinnamon fern produces its spores on separate leaf blades arising from the center of the plant. They're a wooly cinnamon color.

Botrychiums are also known as grape ferns because of the attractive shape of their spore clusters which resemble bunches of grapes. They can be found in well drained soil in the woods and in partially shaded meadows. These are more difficult to transplant than most other ferns due to their dependency on soil fungi to help feed it.

Another curiosity in the world of ferns Camptosorus rhizophyllus, AKA the walking fern. This distinctive little fellow has 4-12 long leathery fronds that are tapered to a point. It reproduces both by spores and by creating new plantlets as the frond tips come into contact with the soil and root themselves. As each new plant becomes established, the process continues and after a few years the newest baby is quite a ways from the top of the "chain." Dennstaedtia punctilobula is commonly referred to as the hay scented fern and with good reason. If you crush the frond, it gives off a fragrance of newly mowed grass. It can be found in large colonies in the full sun of open meadows.

Lygodium palmatum or the climbing fern is another curiosity among ferns. It grows in acid woods in only 5 of the 55 counties in West Virgina, including Greenbrier. Its winding fronds can get to be over three feet long.

There are many other ferns and fern allies too numerous to mention in this short column.

The reproductive cycle of ferns is quite fascinating. Spores are found in various locations on the different species, usually on the undersides of the fronds. When the time is right and these spores are mature, they are released. They land in the soil and under favorable conditions, i.e. moisture, light and temperature, develop into a prothallus, or small leaflike structure smaller than a dime. Its on this structure that microscopic sexual organs are formed and fertilization takes place. Soon afterward a root develops and shortly thereafter a recognizable plant.

This process can be reproduced in the kitchen and you can end up with thousands of new fern babies. Even if you don't want to reproduce ferns, its fun to take a frond and lay it on a white sheet of paper in a warm location. In 24 hours, the sori ( the scientific name for the capsules that enclose the spores) will open and release the spores onto the paper in a beautiful outline of the frond.

Some ferns also reproduce by sending out rhizomes (underground stems) that pop up a foot or so from the main plant with a new plant attached. Royal ferns form a nice little colony in this way very quickly.

Ferns fill a void in the garden, where they can add texture and make a dramatic statement as a single specimen or as a colony in the wild or natural garden. They require little attention other than an occasional feeding and cleanup of the previous year's fronds.

- Barry Glick


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