Ferns are some of my favorite things in the world. They are one of the major reasons I love the forest so much. Their presence is sometimes lush and is always vivid and varied. They are some of the oldest plant life on our planet and some varieties, like sword fern in the Pacific Northwest and Christmas fern here in the east, lend a primordial feel to the landscape. Their shapes, heights and colors are so diverse because they’ve been around so long, filling different ecological niches through the millennia.
As a photographer I love them because they’re intensely photogenic. Especially when in the fiddlehead stage. Right down the road from me is a small nature preserve that has a dense concentration of ferns. I counted I think 6 varieties along a few yards of trail. I have photographed the same section of trail with the ferns fully leafed-out and standing tall. They’re amazing and literally stopped me in my tracks, but before I show you that, here they are when they’re just starting out, braving the frost and the devouring insects.
Just like in their adult state, the fiddleheads all have distinct features and characteristics. Look closely at this next one, can you spot the texture change at the heart of the spiral? Those are spores, the way ferns and other ancient plants reproduce and spread their genes. Only a few Christmas fern fronds carry the spores per plant (I love turning the fronds over to look for them, like Braille they are raised dots). I was just lucky that this gorgeous little fiddlehead was one of them.
Some ferns come in more than just green, like sensitive fern. Its leaves are green, but the stems are red.
Most people have heard of fiddleheads as something to eat. A seasonal item that shows up in some grocery stores. From my reading those are ostrich ferns and the only ones absolutely safe to eat. A friend of mine told me that par-boiling them before sauteing will leach out the bitterness and make them much more delicious. I keep meaning to mark a big grove of ostrich fern and collect some fiddleheads in the spring, but I always forget. They’re some of the earliest that fully unfurl and they are some of the most beautiful.
Interrupted fern gets its name from the specialized leaves that interrupt the pattern of the entire frond. Instead of tucking spores underneath the tips of some fronds, this species hosts them on all the stems and locates them in the middle instead. I love evolution.
Here’s the trail shot I promised. Cinnamon fern dominates, but now I’ve explored it in the early stages, I know they share with interrupted, evergreen, royal, sensitive, ostrich and wood fern.
For more ferny goodness, visit my gallery.