It’s not uncommon to immediately think of coniferous trees when hearing the word Evergreen. For us Mountain folks, these tall beauties with multiple hues of green are a welcomed scene of color as the last parcels of leaves fall to the ground and the landscape takes on a dreary, stark appearance. If you care to venture out on a hike, you will find trees aren’t the only plants that keep their lively green shades throughout the coming winter months.
Ferns can be seen, nestled among the fallen autumn leaves, still as green as they were when they first in spring. Ferns are among the oldest plants on Earth and thrive here in the Adirondacks throughout multiple seasons, including winter. There are about 10,560 species of fern in the World with 60 of them appearing here in the mountains. Not all ferns are capable of surviving the frigid winters but there are a few hardy ferns that live and maintain their lively green coloration as the snow presses them to the forest floor. The Christmas fern, marginal wood fern, intermediate wood fern and rock polypody are some of the ferns surviving the Winter here. These ferns are a life saver to starving wild animals as a food source during the dead of winter. Animals are not the only creatures that utilize ferns as food, humans also consume certain species of ferns including the fiddleheads of bracken, ostrich fern and cinnamon fern.
Ferns have been recognized and adamantly displayed in what was called Fern-Fever. Victorian decorative arts presented the fern motif in pottery, glass, metal, textiles, wood, printed paper and sculptures.
Ferns also became objects of folklore. In Slavic folklore, ferns are believed to bloom once a year, during the Ivan Kupala night. Although alleged to be exceedingly difficult to find, anyone who sees a “fern flower” is thought to be guaranteed to be happy and rich for the rest of their life.
Similarly, Finnish tradition holds that one who finds the “seed” of a fern in bloom on Midsummer night will, by possession of it, be guided and be able to travel invisibly to the locations where eternally blazing Will o’ the wisps called aarnivalkea mark the spot of hidden treasure. These spots are protected by a spell that prevents anyone but the fern-seed holder from ever knowing their locations.
The book “Where the Red Fern Grows” has elicited many questions about the mythical “red fern” named in the book. There is no such known plant, although there has been speculation that the Oblique grape-fern could be referred to here, because it is known to appear on disturbed sites and its fronds may redden over the winter.
No matter the geographical location of ferns, these plants are more than a beautiful woodland addition. They serve some amazing roles in Nature. Here are a few you may not know.
- provide microhabitats, as well as shelter and shade to small animals
- provide a source of food or medicine for animals, including people
- ceremonial and spiritual use or importance
- colonize disturbed sites as one stage in succession
- filter toxins, such as heavy metals, from environments and thus provide a bioindicator for the health of an ecosystem
- evolve to fill unique niches in ecosystems and co-evolve with other species
Photo by Jackie Woodcock