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

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




Pteris aquilina

Almost throughout North America, in dry, somewhat open places. One to two feet high ordinarily, occasionally much higher.

Fronds.—Solitary, one to two feet wide, cut into three primary divisions which are twice-pinnate, widely spreading at the summit of an erect, stout stalk; sporangia borne in a continuous line along the lower margin of the frond; indusium formed by the reflexed edge of the frond.

Of all ferns the Brake is the most widely distributed. It occurs in one form or another in all parts of the world. With us it grows commonly from one to two feet high, occasionally higher. In Oregon it attains a height of six or seven feet, in the Andes of fourteen feet.

It is a vigorous and often a beautiful and striking plant, growing abundantly on sunny hillsides and in open woods.

In the spring or early summer its solitary spreading frond, light-green and delicate in color, might almost be confused with the Oak Fern.Brake   Later its green takes on a dark, dull shade, and its general aspect becomes more hardy than that of any other fern.

The Brake is believed to be the "fearn" of the early Saxons and to have given this prefix to many English towns and villages, such as Fearnhow or Farnhow, Farningham, etc.

It is one of the few ferns mentioned by name in general literature. In the "Lady of the Lake" it is alluded to in the song of the heir of Armandave:

"The heath this night must be my bed,
The Bracken curtain for my head."

Pteris esculenta, a variety of our Brake, is said to have been one of the chief articles of food in New Zealand. It was called "fern-root," and in Dr. Thompson's "Story of New Zealand" is spoken of as follows: "This food is celebrated in song, and the young women, in laying before travellers baskets of cooked fern-root, chant: 'What shall be our food? Shall shellfish and fern-root? That is the root of the earth; that is the food to satisfy a man; the tongues grow by reason of the licking, as if it were the tongue of a dog.'"
Pinnule of Brake showing
reflexed edges

The titles Brake and Bracken are not always confined to their lawful owner. Frequently they are applied to any large ferns, such as the Osmundas, or even to such superficially fern-like plants as Myrica asplenifolia, the so-called sweet fern.

There is a difference of opinion as to the origin of the plant's scientific name, which signifies eagle wing. Some suppose it to be derived from the outline of the heraldic eagle which has been seen by the imaginative in a cross-section of the young stalk. It seems more likely that a resemblance has been fancied between the spreading frond and the plumage of an eagle.

The Brake turns brown in autumn, but does not wither away till the following year.


Adiantum pedatum

Nova Scotia to British Columbia, south to Georgia and Arkansas, in moist woods. Ten to eighteen inches high.

Fronds.—Forked at the summit of the slender black and polished stalk, the recurved branches bearing on one side several slender, spreading pinnate divisions; pinnules obliquely triangular-oblong; sporangia in short fruit-dots on the under margin of a lobe of the frond; indusium formed by the reflexed lobe or tooth of the frond.

For purposes of identification it would seem almost superfluous to describe the Maidenhair, a plant which probably is more generally appreciated than all the rest of the ferns together. Yet, strangely enough, it is confused constantly with other plants and with plants which are not ferns.

A pinna of Maidenhair

Perhaps the early meadow rue is the plant most commonly mistaken for the Maidenhair. While it does not suggest strikingly our eastern fern, its lobed and rounded leaflets bear a likeness to certain species native to other parts of the country, notably to A. Capillus-Veneris, the Venus-hair Fern of the southern States.

But it is not easy to convince a friend that he has made a mistake in this regard. You chance to be driving by a bank overgrown with the early meadow rue when he calls your attention to the unusual abundance of Maidenhair in the neighborhood.

A pinnule of Maidenhair
To his rather indignant surprise you suggest that the plant he saw was not Maidenhair, but the early meadow rue. If he have the least reverence for your botanical attainments he grudgingly admits that possibly it was not the ordinary Maidenhair, but maintains stoutly that it was a more uncommon species which abounds in his especial neighborhood. If truly diplomatic you hold your peace and change the subject, but if possessed by a tormenting love of truth which is always getting you into trouble, you state sadly but firmly that our northeastern States have but one species of Maidenhair, and that it is more than improbable that the favored neighborhood of his home (for it is always an unusually rich locality) offers another. The result of this discussion is that mentally you are pronounced both conceited and pig-headed. For a few weeks the plants in question are passed without comment, but by another summer the rich growth of Maidenhair is again proudly exhibited. Only in one way can you save your reputation and possibly convince your friend. When correcting him, if you glibly remark that

 Adiantum pedatum, our northeastern Maidenhair, is the only species which has been found in this part of the country, that A. Capillus-Veneris, the Maidenhair which somewhat resembles the early meadow rue,  can hardly be found north of Virginia, while A. tenerum is found only in Florida, and A. emarginatum is confined to the Pacific coast, you will have redeemed yourself, not DummyContent


from the stigma of conceit, far from it, but from that of error. The glib utterance of Latin names is attended with a strange power of silencing your opponent and filling him with a sort of grudging belief in your scientific attainments.

The truth is that the average layman who takes an interest in plants is as sensitive regarding the Maidenhair as he is about his recognition of an orchid. By way of warning what more need be said?

Though the Maidenhair has a wide range and grows abundantly in many localities, it possesses a quality of aloofness which adds to its charm. Even in neighborhoods where it grows profusely, it rarely crowds to the roadside or becomes the companion of your daily walks. Its chosen haunts are dim, moist hollows in the woods or shaded hill-sides sloping to the river. In such retreats you find the feathery fronds tremulous on their black, glistening stalks, and in their neighborhood you find also the very spirit of the woods.

Despite its apparent fragility, the Maidenhair is not difficult to cultivate if provided with sufficient shade and moisture.


Cheilanthes vesiita (C. lanosa)

Growing on rocks, Southern New York to Georgia. Six to fifteen inches high, with brown and shining stalks.

Fronds.—Oblong-lance-shaped, rough with rusty hairs, twice-pinnate; pinnæ rather distant, triangular-ovate, cut into oblong, more or less incised pinnules; fruit-dots roundish; indusium formed by the reflexed margins of the lobes which are pushed back by the matured sporangia.

Till a few years ago the most northern station for the Hairy Lip Fern was supposed to be within the limits of New York City. The plant was discovered, in 1866 or 1867, on Manhattan Island, near Fort Tryon, growing on rocks with an eastern exposure. If one should visit this station to-day he would find himself at 196th Street, in the city of New York, some two hundred and thirty-three yards west of the Kingsbridge road, and I fear there would be no trace of this to us rare fern.

Since then the plant has been discovered close to the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie.

Its narrowly oblong, dull-green fronds, more or less covered with red-brown hairs, which give it a somewhat rusty appearance, spring from the clefts and ledges of rocks.

a A fruiting pinnule


Dicksonia pilosiuscula (D. punctilobula)

Two to three feet high; hill-sides, meadows, and thickets from Canada to Tennessee.

Fronds.—Ovate-Iance-shaped, long-tapering, pale-green, thin and very delicate in texture, slightly glandular and hairy, usually thrice-pinnatifid; pinnæ lance-shaped, pointed, repeating in miniature outline of frond; pinnules cut again into short and obtuse lobes or segments; fruit-dots each on an elevated globular receptacle on a recurved toothlet; indusium cup-shaped, open at the top.}}

In parts of the country, especially from Connecticut southward, the Hay-scented Fern is one of the abundant plants. Though not essentially a rock-loving plant, it rejoices in such rocky, upland pastures as crown many of our lower mountain ranges, "great stretches of grayish or sage-green fields in which every bowlder and outcrop of rock is marked by masses of the bright-green fronds of Dicksonia, over which the air moves lazily, heavy with the peculiar fragrance of this interesting fern." Its singularly delicate, tapering, pale-green fronds, curving gracefully in every direction, rank it among our most beautiful and noticeable ferns. Often along the roadsides it forms great masses of feathery foliage, tempting the weary pedestrian or bicycler to fling himself upon a couch sufficiently soft and luxurious in appearance to satisfy a sybarite. But I can testify that the Hay-scented Fern does not make so good a bed as it promises.

Two years ago, during a memorably hot August,


a Early stage of fruiting pinnule

an afternoon drive over an unused mountain load brought us to a picturesque spot where the clear stream tumbled into a rock-paved basin, suggesting so vividly the joy of

"——the cool silver shock
Of the plunge in a pool's living water,"

that then and there we resolved soon to pitch our tent upon its banks. In all respects it was not a suitable camp site. There were no balsams or ever-greens of any kind available for bedding in the neighborhood, so when, a few days later, we had taken up our quarters just above the rock-paved pool, we went into our temporary back-yard where the Dicksonia grew abundantly with its usual soft and seductive appearance, and gathered great armfuls for the night's rest. I must frankly own that I never slept on so hard a bed. Since then I have been more than ever inclined to believe that ferns inhabit the earth chiefly for decorative ends. In the present age they do not lend themselves as once they did to medicinal purposes. Usually they are without culinary value. So far as I know animals refuse to eat them on account of their acrid juices. And experience proves that when used as a bed they do not

"——medicine thee to that sweet sleep
Which thou owedst yesterday."

The Hay-scented Fern is very sensitive, withering with the early frosts. Sometimes in the fall it bleaches almost white. Then its slender fronds seem like beautiful wraiths of their former selves.

The Dicksonia, as he always calls it, is Thoreau's favorite among the ferns. Its fronds are sweet-scented when crushed or in drying, and to their fragrance he was peculiarly sensitive:

"Going along this old Carlisle road . . . road where all wild things and fruits abound, where there are countless rocks to jar those who venture in wagons; road which leads to and through a great but not famous garden, zoölogical and botanical, at whose gate you never arrive—as I was going along there, I perceived the grateful scent of the Dicksonia fern now partly decayed. It reminds me of all up country, with its springy mountain-sides and unexhausted vigor. Is there any essence of Dicksonia fern, I wonder? Surely that giant, who my neighbor expects is to bound up the Alleghenies, will have his handkerchief scented with that. The sweet fragrance of decay! When I wade through by narrow cow-paths, it is as if I had strayed into an ancient and decayed herb garden. Nature perfumes her garments with this essence now especially. She gives it to those who go a-barberrying and on dark autumnal walks. The very scent of it, if you have a decayed frond in your chamber, will take you far up country in a twinkling. You would think you had gone after the cows there, or were lost on the mountains."


"Why can we not oftener refresh one another with original thoughts? If the fragrance of the Dicksonia fern is so grateful and suggestive to us, how much more refreshing and encouraging, recreating, would be fresh and fragrant thoughts communicated to us from a man's experience ? I want none of his pity nor sympathy in the common sense, but that he should emit and communicate to me his essential fragrance … going a-huckleberrying in the fields of thought, and enriching all the world with his vision and his joys."

In connection with this fern Thoreau indulges in one of those whimsical, enchanting disquisitions with the spirit of which you are in complete accord, even though you may seem to contradict the letter.

"It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know. I do not get nearer by a hairs-breadth to any natural object, so long as I presume that I have an introduction to it from some learned man. To conceive of it with a total apprehension, I must for the thousandth time approach it as something totally strange. If you would make acquaintance with the ferns, you must forget your botany. Not a single scientific term or distinction is the least to the purpose. You would fain perceive something, and you must approach the object totally unprejudiced. You must be aware that nothing is what you have taken it to be. In what book is this world and its beauty described? Who has plotted the steps toward the discovery of beauty? You must be in a different state from common. Your greatest success will be simply to perceive that such things are, and you will have no communication to make to the Royal Society. If it were required to know the position of the fruit-dots or the character of the indusium, nothing could be easier than to ascertain it; but if it is required that you be affected by ferns, that they amount to anything, signify anything to you, that they be another sacred scripture and revelation to you, helping to redeem your life, this end is not so easily accomplished."