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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