Monday, March 8, 2010

The Beautiful Forms of Ferns

I have a new resident in my household. A fern. It lives in a pot next to a window. Since I am attempting to advance my learnedness about the ways of ferns, I adopted a forlorn little fern from my local florist's greenhouse. I don't know its species or particular habits, but I do know that in general ferns like moisture. (June 2010, I have since identified this fern as a Boston Fern (nephrolepsis exaltata var. bostoniensis), a mutation of the species that is native to Florida, West Indies, and the Asian Pacific. It has long been cultivated on a commercial level for the florist trade, beginning in Boston--hence the common name. ) I try to keep it happy by placing it right next to the humidifier. So far it is thriving. It is putting out spindly runners (known as stolon) so I have placed another pot next to it, but so far no contact made. Living with the plant so intimately, I get to watch the birth of each new frond. (The entire frond is the fern leaf. )

Each new frond emerges from the center of the other fronds that encircle it. (Writing later--this is only my first impression, the new fronds also emerge around the perimeter of the clump of fronds, halfway in from the outside perimeter, or wherever. ) Each frond begins as a fuzzy question mark, with a pale green clench of tiny new pinnae within the swirl. Pinnae is the word for the fern leaflets that are placed horizontally along the frond stem. (Singular = pinna.)
The tiny clench gradually unfurls into a very long and narrow many toothed shape. This fern's fronds look to me like series of pennant flags alternating on a central pole, a flexible pole like a bamboo fishing rod. The pennants also bring to mind a double row of Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in a strong wind.
Each baby frond is like a very complex flag display that was somehow lovingly folded up by impossibly tiny hands. (Perhaps by fairies?) I have not yet been able to visualize how the frond grows longer and adds new pinnae at the same time. The tender fist of new pinnae remains, (or continually emerges?) at the end of the frond as it lengthens, finally disappearing as the last pinnae unfold. I wish I could aim a video camera to film the process and then speed it up like those old nature films. Fern time is quite different from human time. Last month, I visited one of my favorite places to go in February, when it seems spring is dragging its muddy feet--the National Botanical Garden conservatory in Washington DC. This time I was on a mission to see the 'prehistoric' plants--ferns, cycads, conifers. They have their own room in the gigantic greenhouse, where mist periodically descends from above. Here one finds exotic ferns from all over the world. Photography was challenging as my lens kept fogging up! Top photo and below show some of the graceful and beautiful forms that I found similar to those of my "pet" fern.