Fern Seed: A Fable

By Anita Sanchez

A whim­si­cal arti­cle by our nature colum­nist, Ani­ta Sanchez, from the Sum­mer 2014 issue. We invite our vis­i­tors to tour the Arboretum’s Fern Glen.

Once upon a time there was a farmer who had lost a foal, and so he went out on Mid­sum­mer’s Eve to search for it. He chanced to pass through a clus­ter of ferns, and some of the fern seed fell into his shoes. He found his miss­ing ani­mal and went joy­ful­ly home, but when he walked in the door, nei­ther his wife nor his chil­dren looked at him or paid any heed to him. When he cried, I have found the foal!” they screamed and ran from the room in fear.

At first the farmer was bewil­dered. Then he remem­bered walk­ing through the ferns and real­ized what had hap­pened. He took off his shoes and emp­tied them of fern seed, and his fam­i­ly returned, for now he was no longer invis­i­ble.
Folk tales derive from many dif­fer­ent sources, all impos­si­ble to date, but all agree that fern seed is pow­er­ful stuff. Shake­speare referred to fern seeds’ mag­i­cal abil­i­ties four hun­dred years ago, but the leg­ends are cer­tain­ly much old­er than that. Fern seed can bring you luck, or cause your horse to cast a shoe, or help you con­verse with birds. 

Fern seed. I’ll bet you’ve nev­er seen any. That’s because the seed is itself almost invis­i­ble. You’ll need to be care­ful when walk­ing through ferns lest you get some in your shoes. Of course, its mag­i­cal pow­ers will also help you find lost things, turn lead into sil­ver, detect buried trea­sure, and gen­er­al­ly pro­tect you against spells, espe­cial­ly on Midsummer’s Eve.

The oth­er rea­son you might pos­si­bly not have seen fern seed is that it doesn’t exist. It’s like hen’s teeth. Ferns evolved mil­lions of years before seed-bear­ing plants such as grass­es and wild­flow­ers, and ferns repro­duce by means of spores. These dust-like specks are so tiny as to be almost invis­i­ble. Although an indi­vid­ual fern plant can pro­duce mil­lions, even bil­lions, of spores, they can be hard to find. They’re car­ried on the fern plant is some very odd places.

The spores of the maid­en­hair ferns are ten­der­ly held in the very tips of the leaves, fold­ed over a frac­tion of an inch. Lady ferns, wood ferns, and sev­er­al oth­er species have dark clus­ters of spores, called sori, in pat­terns on the back of some (but not all) of the leaves. Sen­si­tive fern has its spores on a stiff brown frond that is appar­ent­ly unre­lat­ed to the green part of the fern. How­ev­er, they are con­nect­ed by under­ground roots, and for many cen­turies botanists assumed they were two com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent species. Ostrich fern also has two dif­fer­ent types of fronds, one green, one with­ered-look­ing brown which holds the spores. Christ­mas fern has a sprin­kling of spores on the backs of some of the top­most leaflets, or pin­nae.
It’s easy to see why the ancients didn’t think of spores as the repro­duc­tive part of the plant. They’re with­ered, dusty brown clus­ters that look omi­nous, as though the fern has an insect infes­ta­tion or an unpleas­ant and pos­si­bly con­ta­gious dis­ease. But the brown pow­dery stuff is just spores – a sign the fern is healthy and reproducing.

So when you go walk­ing at the Arbore­tum, wan­der through the ferns and look for the hid­den spores. Just watch where you step, and shake your shoes out when you get home. Just in case.

Summer 2020

Volume 38 , Number 2

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