How to Know the Ferns (7th ed)/Group III

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How to Know the Ferns, 7th ed. by Frances Theodora Parsons
Group III.




Pellæ gracilis (P. Stelleri)

Labrador to Pennsylvania, usually on sheltered rocks, preferring limestone. Two to five inches long, with straw-colored or pale-brown stalks, slightly chaffy below.

Fronds.—Delicate, with few pinnæ; pinnæ, the lower ones once or twice parted into 3—5 divisions, those of the fertile frond oblong or linear-oblong, sparingly incised, of the sterile frond ovate or obovate, toothed or incised; sporangia bordering the pinnæ of the fertile frond, covered by a broad and usually continuous general indusium, formed by the reflexed margin of the pinnule.

The first time I found the Slender Cliff Brake was one July day in Central New York, under the kind guidance of an enthusiastic fern collector. A rather perilous climb along the sides of a thickly wooded glen brought us to a spot where our only security lay in clinging to the trees, which, like ourselves, had obtained doubtful standing-room. In a pocket in the limestone just above us I was shown a very brown and withered little plant which only the closest scrutiny in combination with a certain amount of foreknowledge could identify as the Slender Cliff Brake. The season had been a dry one and the plant had perished, I fancy, for lack of water, in spite of the stream which plunged from the top of the cliffs close by, almost near enough, it seemed to me, to moisten with its spray our hot cheeks.

Portion of fertile frond

Later in the season I found more promising though not altogether satisfactory specimens of this plant growing in other rocky crevices of the same deep glen, in the neighborhood of the Maidenhair Spleenwort, the Walking Leaf, and the Bulblet Bladder Fern.

My sister tells me that late in August on the cliffs which border the St. Lawrence River, refreshed by the myriad streams which leap or trickle down their sides, under the hanging roots of trees, close to clusters of quivering harebells and pale tufts of the Brittle Bladder Fern, the Slender Cliff Brake grows in profusion, its delicate fronds rippling over one another so closely that at times they give the effect of a long, luxuriant moss. On most occasions, in these soft beds of foliage, she found the fertile fronds, which are far more slender and unusual looking than the sterile, largely predominating, though at times a patch would be made up chiefly of the sterile fronds. These somewhat resemble the Brittle Bladder Fern in whose company they are seen so often.

Slender Cliff Brake


Pellæa atropurpurea

Canada to Georgia and westward, usually on limestone cliffs; with wiry purplish stalks.

Fertile fronds.—Six to twenty inches high, leathery, bluish-green, pale underneath, once, or below twice, pinnate; pinnæ, upper ones long and narrow, lower ones usually with one to four pairs of broadly linear pinnules; sporangia bordering the pinnæ, bright brown at maturity; indusium formed by the reflexed margin of the frond.

Sterile fronds.—Usually much smaller than the fertile and less abundant; pinnæ oblong, entire, or slightly toothed.

The Purple Cliff Brake is one of the plants that rejoice in un-get-at-able and perilous situations. Although its range is wider than that of many ferns, this choice of inconvenient localities, joined to the fact that it is not a common plant, renders it likely that unless you pay it the compliment of a special expedition in its honor you will never add it to the list of your fern acquaintances.

But when all is said we are inestimably in debt to the plants so rare or so exclusive as to entice us out of our usual haunts into theirs. Not only do they draw us away from our books, out of our houses, but off the well-known road and the trodden path into unfamiliar woods which stand ready to reveal fresh treasures, across distant pastures where the fragrant wind blows away the memory of small anxieties, up into the hills from whose summits we get new views.

Although the Purple Cliff Brake grows, I believe


a Portion of fertile frond

within fifteen miles of my home in Albany, I never saw the plant until this summer some hundred miles nearer the centre of the State. During a morning call I chanced to mention that I was anxious to find two or three ferns which were said to grow in the neighborhood. My hostess told me that twenty-five years before, on some limestone cliffs about eight miles away, she had found two unknown ferns which had been classified and labelled by a botanical friend. Excusing herself she left me and soon returned with carefully pressed specimens of the Purple Cliff Brake and the little Rue Spleenwort, the two ferns I was most eager to find. Such moments as I experienced then of long-deferred but peculiar satisfaction go far toward making one an apostle of hobbies. My pleasure was increased by the kind offer to guide me to the spot which had yielded the specimens.

One morning soon after we were set down at the little railway station from which we purposed to walk to the already-mentioned cliffs. We were not without misgivings as we followed an indefinite path across some limestone quarries, for a plant may easily disappear from a given station in the course of twenty-five years. In a few moments the so-called path disappeared in a fringe of bushes which evidently marked the beginning of a precipitous descent. Cautiously clinging to whatever we could lay hold of, bushes, roots of trees or imbedded rocks, we climbed over the cliff's side, still following the semblance of a path. On our left a stream plunged nearly two hundred feet into the ravine below. For some distance the eye could follow its silver course, then it disappeared beneath the arching trees. On our right, many miles beyond, through the blue haze which hung over the distant valley, we could see the lake to which the stream was hurrying.

We could not surrender ourselves with comfort to the beauty of the outlook, as our surroundings were not such as to put us altogether at ease. Overhead hung great rocks, so cracked and seamed and shattered as to threaten a complete downfall, while beneath our feet the path which led along the face of the cliff crumbled away, so that it was difficult in places to obtain any foothold. Having passed the more perilous spots, however, we became accustomed to the situation and turned our attention to the unpromising wall of rock which rose beside us. From its crevices hung graceful festoons of Bulblet Bladder Fern, and apparently nothing but Bulblet Bladder Fern. But soon one of the party gave a cry and pointed in triumph to a bluish-green cluster of foliage which sprang from a shallow pocket overhead. Even though one had not seen the plant before, there was no mistaking the wiry purplish stalks, the leathery, pinnately parted, blue-green fronds, and, above all, the marginal rows of bright brown sporangia peculiar to the Purple Cliff Brake. Soon after we found several other plants, all of them decidedly scraggly in appearance, with but few green fronds and many leafless stalks. Occasionally a small sterile frond, with broader, more oblong pinnæ, could be seen, but these were in the minority. A number of very young plants, with little, heart-shaped leaves altogether unlike the mature fronds, were wedged in neighboring crannies.

As our eyes grew more accustomed to the contour and coloring of the cliffs, the success of the day was completed by the discovery of several specimens of the little Rue Spleenwort with tiny fronds flattened against the rock.

When next I saw the Purple Cliff Brake it seemed to me quite a different fern from the rather awkward plant, the mere sight of which I had welcomed so eagerly that any unfavorable criticism of its appearance seems ungrateful.

Again it sprang from limestone cliffs, even more remote and inaccessible though less dangerous than those where I saw it first. These cliffs were so shattered in places that the broken fragments lay in heaps at their base and on the projecting ledges. Here and there a great shaft of rock had broken away and stood like the turret of a castle or the bastion of a fort. Among the shattered fragments high up on the cliff's side the Purple Cliff Brake grew in a luxuriant profusion that was amazing in view of the surroundings. The rigid, erect fronds formed large tufts of greenish-gray foliage that, at a little distance, so blended with their rocky background as to be almost indistinguishable. The fronds usually were much more compound than those I had seen a few weeks before. The separate plants had a vigorous, bushy appearance that did

"The unpromising wall of rock which rose beside us."

More compound frond
of Purple Cliff Brake
Sterile frond
not suggest the same species. Many of the pinnæ were so turned as to display the ripe sporangia, which formed a bright-brown border to the pale, slender divisions. Here, too, the small sterile fronds were very rare.

Growing from the broken rocks in among the Purple Cliff Brake were thrifty little tufts of the Maidenhair Spleenwort. This tiny plant seemed to have forgotten its shyness and to have forsworn its love for moist, shaded, mossy rocks. It ventured boldly out upon these barren cliffs, exposing itself to the fierce glare of the sun and to every blast of wind, and holding itself upright with a saucy self-assurance that seemed strangely at variance with its nature.

Near by a single patch of the Walking Leaf climbed up the face of the cliff while, perhaps strangest of all, from the decaying trunk of a tree, which lay prostrate among the rocks, sprang a single small but perfect plant of the Ebony Spleenwort, a fern which was a complete stranger in this locality, so far as I could learn.


Aspidium acrosiichoides (Dryopteris acrostichoides)

New Brunswick to Florida, in rocky woods. One to two and a half feet high, with very chaffy stalks.

Fronds.—Lance-shaped, once-pinnate, fertile fronds contracted toward the summit; pinnæ narrowly lance-shaped, half halberd-shaped at the slightly stalked base, bristly-toothed, the upper ones on the fertile fronds contracted and smaller; fruit-dots round, close, confluent with age, nearly covering the under surface of the fertile pinnæ; indusium orbicular, fixed by the depressed centre.

Of our evergreen ferns this is the best fitted to serve as a decoration in winter. No other fern has such deep-green, highly polished fronds. They need only a mixture of red berries to become a close rival to the holly at Christmastime.

Portion of fertile frond

Wrapped in a garment of brown scales, the young fronds of the Christmas Fern are sent into the world early in the spring. When we go to the woods in April to look for arbutus, or to listen to the first songs of the robin and the bluebird, we notice that last year's fronds are still fresh and green. Low down among them, curled up like tawny caterpillars, are the young fronds. The arbutus will have made way for pink and blue and white hepaticas, for starry bloodroot, and for tremulous anemones; thrushes and orioles will have joined the robins and the bluebirds before these new-comers present much of an Christmas Fernappearance. When the tender, delicately green fronds are first unrolled they contrast strongly with their polished, dark-green, leathery companions.

In this plant the difference is quite conspicuous between the fertile and the sterile fronds. The sterile ones are shorter and apparently broader, while the fertile are tall, slender, and noticeably contracted by the abundantly fruiting pinnæ near the apex.


Asplenium angustifolium

Canada to Kentucky, in moist woods. Two to four feet high.

Sterile fronds.—Thin, smooth, lance-shaped, perishable, once-pinnate.

Fertile fronds.—Taller, narrower, longer-stalked; pinnæ more narrowly lance-shaped than on sterile fronds; fruit-dots linear, a row on each side the midvein; indusium slightly convex.

If we make an expedition to the woods early in July we may, perhaps, find some plants of the Narrow-leaved Spleenwort. At this season they are specially attractive, with smooth, delicate, pale-green fronds, so recently unfolded as to be full of little undulations, which they lose more or less at maturity, and which are as indicative of youth as the curves and dimples of a baby.


a Magnified pinna of fertile frond

Late in August the plant has reached a stately height, perhaps of three or four feet. The fronds are still smooth and delicate to a degree unusual even in ferns. But they wear a deeper green, and their texture seems a trifle more substantial. Occasionally, though rarely in the deeper woods, we find a frond which is conspicuously longer-stalked, taller, narrower than the others, with pinnae more distant and more contracted. A glance at its lower surface discovers double rows of brown, linear fruit-dots.

Though one of the largest of its tribe, the Narrow-leaved Spleenwort suggests greater fragility, a keener sensitiveness to uncongenial conditions, than any other of our native ferns. A storm which leaves the other inhabitants of the forest almost untouched beats down its fronds, tender and perishable even in maturity.

This very fragility, accompanied as it is with beauty of form and color, in the midst of the somewhat coarse and hardy growth of the August woods, lends the plant a peculiar charm.

I find it growing beneath great basswoods, lichen-spotted beeches, and sugar maples with trunks branchless for fifty feet, soaring like huge shipmasts into the blue above.

Almost the only flowers in its neighborhood, for in midsummer wood-flowers are rare, are the tiny pink blossoms of the herb Robert, that invincible little plant which never wearies in well-doing, but persists in flowering from June till October, the violet-blue heads of the almost equally untiring self-heal and the yellow pitchers of the pale touch-me-not or jewel-weed. This plant, a close relative of the more southern and better known spotted touch-me-not, grows in great patches almost in the heart of the woods. The lack of flowers is somewhat atoned for by the coral clusters of the red baneberry and the black-spotted, china-like fruit of the white baneberry.

But ferns chiefly abound in these woods. Everywhere I notice the thin, spreading frond and withered fruit-cluster of the Rattlesnake Fern, in my experience the most ubiquitous member of the Botrychium group. More or less frequent are graceful crowns of the Spinulose Shield Fern, slender shining fronds of Christmas Fern, dull-green groups of Silvery Spleenwort and stately plumes of Goldie's Fern. As we draw near the wood's border, where the yellow sunlit fields of grain shine between the tall maple shafts, we push aside umbrella-like Brakes. At the very limits of the woods, close against the rails, grows the sweet-scented Dicksonia.


Woodwardia angustifolia

Swampy places from Maine to Florida, in wet woods near the coast.

Sterile fronds.—Twelve to eighteen inches high, pinnatifid with minutely toothed divisions united by a broad wing.

Fertile fronds.—Taller than the sterile, once-pinnate; pinnæ much contracted; fruit-dots in a single row each side of the secondary midribs; indusium fixed by its outer margin, opening on the side next the midrib.

The Woodwardias are associated in my mind with sea-air, pine-trees, and the flat, sandy country near Buzzard's Bay, Mass. Both species were met with in one walk not far from the shore.

A little stream, scarcely more than a ditch, divided an open, sunny meadow from a bit of evergreen wood, and on the steep banks of this runlet grew the bright fronds of Woodwardia augustifolia, giving at first glance somewhat the impression of Onoclea sensibilis. The fronds of both are described as pinnatifid, and in this Woodwardia we find the divisions minutely toothed (a), giving them a rough outline which is wanting in Onoclea sensibilis. These are the sterile fronds. Among them and taller than they are the fertile fronds with very narrow divisions, covered on the lower side with the chains of fruit-dots (b).


It is a handsome fern and very satisfactory to the novice in fern hunting, because, taking fertile and sterile fronds together, it cannot be confused with any other species.

Crossing the tiny stream, a path dim with the shade of low, dense evergreens and soft and elastic underfoot from their fallen leaves, leads through the woods. Here among the partridge-vine that runs over the rocks, growing from the soft, spongy soil, are groups of the sterile fronds only of this Woodwardia, charming little clumps of fresh green that invite one to dig them up and plant them in boxes or baskets for decorative purposes.