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The Woodsman: Ferns: Ancient Plants Thriving on The Mountain

By Steve Wilent

The Woodsman: Ferns: Ancient Plants Thriving on The Mountain

A glance at most any view of our Mountain landscape confirms the obvious: we have a lot of trees. Less obvious, but still readily apparent, are the ferns that vastly outnumber the trees. Some of the ferns may be even older than the trees that tower over them. Various sources say sword ferns, widespread in our area, can live for centuries.

Ferns have been present on Earth longer than trees. Scientists think the first forests were made of Archaeopteris, a genus of plants dating 375 million years past; they had fern-like foliage and, like most modern ferns, reproduced by spores rather than seeds. The ancestors of the true ferns we see today were very likely present before Archaeopteris forests developed. The earliest known fossil of a fern ancestor, found in Siberia, dates from about 500 million years ago. According to the American Fern Society, the ferns we see today evolved relatively recently — roughly the last 70 million years. With about 10,500 living species, they are the second-most diverse group of vascular plants on Earth, outnumbered only by flowering plants.

Ferns reproduce from spores that are held in clusters called sori, which are usually on the underside of the fronds and may be yellow, green, brown, or black. In our area, spores ripen from late May through October and will drift off like fine dust or pollen. Fern spores can aggravate allergies in some people.
To propagate ferns from spores, says the Hardy Fern Foundation, “pick a frond or portion of a frond and place it between two sheets of white paper. If ripe, the spores should drop within 24 hours and will leave a pattern on the paper. Frequently, chaff will drop as well, and this must be removed before sowing. To get rid of the chaff, tilt the paper slightly and tap gently. The chaff will fall away while the spores remain behind.” Of course, with so many ferns here, there’s little need to produce more of them.

Sword fern has a well-deserved reputation as a tough plant. I have driven over some large ones near my burn pile many times, and they always come back the next year looking as though they hadn’t been mashed into the ground. I’ve dug up sword ferns, cut the rhizome bundle into two, and transplanted them, and they’ve thrived.

Several ferns grow in our shady forests along with sword fern: deer, lady, maidenhair, and others. The stems and rhizomes of licorice ferns, which typically grow on tree trunks or boulders, supposedly taste like black licorice, but I’ve found that they’re rather bland. Indigenous people in the region reportedly chewed licorice fern for flavor and as a treatment for colds and sore throats; they sometimes steeped licorice fern rhizomes to make a medicinal tea.

Bracken ferns, which grow from single stems rather than in bunches, usually prefer sunny areas such as pastures, roadsides, and burned areas. They usually grow to three or four feet tall, but I’ve seen taller specimens. Some people, including Lara, think bracken fern is a weed, since it can quickly take over a disturbed site.

The tightly coiled tips of young fern fronds are known as fiddleheads, because they resemble the head of a fiddle. Are fiddleheads edible? Some are, some aren’t. According to the University of Oregon, bracken and lady fern are the only two edible fiddlehead species in the Pacific Northwest. Eating other fiddleheads, even after cooking them, may make you sick.

No one sent in an answer to last month’s question, “Know what you call a barred owl with no feathers?” It’s obvious: a bared owl.

Have a question about ferns? Are you willing to admit that you once hung out in fern bars? Let me know. Email:

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