Mary Beth Writes

2/15/2023

F is for Ferns, Fungi, Friends

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I’ve been googling lots. I’m still wildly unprepared to talk about ferns or fungi, but I know more than I did last week and I guess that’s how we do this.

Ferns were among the first actual plants to show up on planet earth. Over a period of precisely several bazillion years algae crept out of the steamy hot tropical oceans and lakes that covered just about everything. You know how algae creeps, right? Have you seen the showers at a campground? Algae doesn’t wanna stay back there. Algae wants to move (on up to the east side).

After a couple of eons there were now masses of dead and alive algae everywhere, all locking in CO2 (one of the greenhouse gasses warming our planet now). This gathering and storing of CO2 v-e-r-y slowly caused our planet to cool. As the climate became less intense plants could evolve, plants which would grow fronds and leaves with which to absorb sunlight to facilitate photosynthesis. Boom, a mere 400-300 (or so) million year ago ferns were among the first plants to come to this party. We know this because of 400-300-million-year-old fossils with fern fronds in them. 

Ferns grow and move in two-step combo. They did this several million years ago and they do it now.

First, ferns spread by rhizomes which are those underground stems that spread to send up new plants. Anyone who has tried to keep ferns contained in just one part of a garden knows rhizomes on a personal basis.

Ferns do not reproduce by seeds that were produced by flowers (as do almost all other plants). Seeds inside flowers require bugs and animals to disseminate those seeds. When ferns first popped up on earth, there were no bugs or animals. Ferns propagate via spores under their fronds. Actually, those black dots are clumps of spores because individual spores are microscopic. (I didn’t know this so I had to tell you.) Ferns grow whenever conditions are right, so there isn’t a designated fern season.

Spores get water by sucking moisture (believe me, none of the scientific articles called this sucking, but you know what I mean) from the plant. At a certain point spores take in enough moisture so that pressure builds up in the now depleted water pipes in the frond, and that vacuum will eventually SHOOT the spore out into the world. I’ve seen flying spores but had no idea I was watching such a complicated process. I bought my kids a marshmallow gun once. You put the marshmallow in, pull back the plunger, let go, and the air shoots it out. Like that.

Carl Linnaeus was Swedish so I (great-granddaughter of eight Swedes) should mention that he was the first scientist to identify ferns as their own classification of plants by listing 15 kinds of ferns in 1753. Scientists now estimate there are more than 9000 kinds of ferns. That’s a Swede for you. Make a list. Start where you can. One step in front of the other. You will never finish the job but you will have done your part.

Ferns live on the margins of habitats and come in all sizes. Teeny ferns grow in rice paddies, and most other quiet watery surfaces, where they “fix” nitrogen. This is why traditional rice paddies don’t require added fertilizer. 

New Zealand and Norfolk Island, Australia have ferns that grow up to 65 feet tall and look like palm trees. 

You can eat just coming out of the ground fern fiddleheads in the spring. Sautee them with bacon or dried tomatoes if you are feeling it (Look up recipes to do this right). I like to just pick and eat them while standing in my garden. They taste like green exploding in your mouth.

So ferns don’t have seeds, they have those spores. A Finnish folktale says that anyone who finds the seed of a fern which blooms on Midsummer night can use that seed to travel invisibly to where eternally blazing will o' the wisps mark the spot of hidden treasure. Not kidding. If you are so smug as to think you know where to look for these treasures, you are wrong since those places are magically protected from non-fern-seed holders. Truly, one wonders how this tale evolved. And why so many folk tales are about things that don’t exist.

Next time I’m with grandkids, I am going to explain to them that ferns NEVER have flowers, and then ask them to draw a picture of what a fern flower would look like if they did exist.

Olden myths here in the US say a dried fern can be thrown into hot coals to exorcise evil spirits. Also, smoke from a burning fern will remove snakes and other unwelcome creatures.

Who wants to burn ferns near politicians who lie?

The universe is old beyond the scope of our imagination and nothing in it is standing still. What is it swirling towards? What’s the story here? We come from rock, water, heat, slime. Then there were ferns and 400 million later, there still are. What small and powerful splendor is going on here? What story are we part of? If our lives are only a smidgen of time, what are the most holy and beautiful ways to use our slivers of warmth, water, air, and the necessity to spin and whorl?

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