consider the ferns

lady fern and maidenhair

I want to write something about ferns because I’ve been looking at them quite carefully over the past week. A few years ago I lifted a clump of lady fern (Althyrium filix-femina) from a damp area near us, a place regularly mowed by the highways guys. There are so many ferns in that area, mostly maidenhair (you can see a little bit of maidenhair in the lower right section of this clump; it’s Adiantum pedatum, the specific name alluding to the bird’s foot or palmate shape of the leaves). And at this time of year, they’re so green and lush.

Everything has its time and right now it’s ferns. The sword ferns in the woods we walked in yesterday, the licorice ferns growing on the mossy trunks of big-leaf maples, the deer ferns sending up their fertile stalks. Even this little clump of maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes) I brought back from the underside of a rock outcropping on a walk this winter:

maidenhair spleenwort

It’s been very hot the past few days and the ferns are cool. You walk among them and you realize that you are in the presence of plants that have been around for about 350 million years. They are so well-adapted. And full of lore. In Slavic countries, Kupala night is celebrated around June 24 or 25th, corresponding more or less with the summer solstice (this year occurring at 3:07 tomorrow morning where I live). The longest day. I think that some of the Kupala Night traditions revolve around fertility and that the heart of those traditions is the belief that ferns bloom on this one brief night. Young unmarried men and women go together to search for the flowering ferns. Of course ferns don’t flower. They reproduce via spores. But that shouldn’t get in the way of a good story.

maidenhair fern

There’s a little grove of maidenhair ferns at the foot of the stairs leading to my front door. Again, they came from the place that gets mowed every year but the ferns return in abundance despite the blades. In the 13th Idyll of Theocritus, there’s a reference to maidenhair ferns:

Ere long he espied a spring; in a hollow it lay, whereabout there grew many herbs, as well blue swallow-wort and fresh green maidenhair as blooming parsley and tangled deergrass.

The swallow-worts are invasive vines (Cynanchum spp.). Deergrass, though? There’s a deergrass which is a bunchgrass native to the southwestern United States, a plant of dry areas. But deer fern maybe? There’s a lot of it growing at the bottom of our driveway, by a low marshy area where we hear frogs in spring. In winter, we see it nipped right back by deer and elk who graze on its succulent fronds. And right about now, the narrow fertile leaves are rising from the centres of the plants, just in time for Kupala Night or the Solstice, for the young to encounter on their moonlit walks in search of the flowering ferns.

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