A long holiday was before me, which I was going to
spend in various visits among friends and relatives residing in
different parts of England. I was very anxious to gain some improvement
during this "play-time," something that in future periods of sickness or
weariness might be a resource to me, but in what direction I should seek
this advantage I found it difficult to decide. As the railway train sped
onward, bearing me far from the great capital, I continued to revolve
various plans in my mind, but I reached my journey's end, a sequestered
domicile in one of the most remote of the Yorkshire dales, before coming
to a decision. The long drive in the dark from the railway terminus had
left me in total ignorance of the sort of country I was visiting; so it
was with eager impatience that I drew up my blind on first awaking in
the morning. The window commanded a view of a wide valley, the
prevailing feature of which was far-spreading moors. On the hill-sides
were deep clefts, where noisy brooks foamed down, and nourished
birch-woods along their banks. Three villages and two churches were
visible on the left, while on the right the valley became more narrow
and the country more wild. The river Swale wound serpent-like along the
dale, and the morning sun turned its waters to gold. I stood for a time
in a trance of delight, rejoicing in the beauty that surrounded me; and
then I hastened to perform my toilet, that I might go forth and taste
the freshness of the morning. As I sat at breakfast with my cousin, his
wife, and their daughter Esther, I mentioned my immature plan, in which
my young cousin expressed great interest.
"Take up the study of ferns," she said; "I want to do
so. I have got a book about them, and I want to understand them from the
very beginning. There are numbers of them in our woods and pastures, and
it is a perfect waste of objects of interest to neglect them."
"Be it so," I replied; "get your book, and we will
hie away to the woods."
Seated upon a mossy bank, under the shade of
oak and birch trees, with a merry brook bubbling at our feet, we
opened our book to con our first lesson. Esther had a keenly-observant
eye, and a mind ever on the alert, but she could not bear close
"I will bathe Diver in the rivulet, while you make
out the meaning of that book," she said, "and then you shall tell me all
about it." Diver took very kindly to the bathing, and neither he
nor his mistress made any haste to return to me. When she did come, her
face was glowing, and her eyes sparkling, and she carried a quantity of
ferns in her hand.
"Now, tell me all about these ferns," she said, with
a mischievous look; "you have had full time to master the whole theory."
"I have mastered but little yet," I replied; "but
listen to what I have learned:—Every fern has a root which we can easily
recognise, being subject only to the variations which we observe in the
roots of other plants. It has a rhizome, which, in the
tree-ferns, is the bole, but in our small members of the family
generally creeps underground, and might be mistaken for a part of the
root. The whole fern as we have them is called a frond, and the
frond is composed of a stalk and leaflets. It has no
flowers, but its seeds grow abundantly on the back of the leaflets. The
seeds are enclosed in cases. From the position of these
the genus of the fern is decided. The first division of ferns, the
Polypodiaceae, have the seed-cases in groups, without any covering. Take
my pocket lens, and look if any of those you have in your hand answer to
We examined some tall feathery fronds, the back of
which were freely scattered by seed masses. But on each of these masses
there was a tiny cover, so that proved that they did not belong to the
Poly-podiacese. Seizing upon some smaller fronds, which were hanging
from a rock close to us, she exclaimed—
"The seeds here are of a sensible size; there is some
chance of seeing them without the glass. Look, they have no covering."
"No, the covering is absent. But it is not the seeds
you see; they are so small as to appear only like powder. These grains
that lie here in groups are the seed-cases. The leaflets here are
simple, so it is evident that this is the Common Polypody, (Fig. 1,
Polypodium Vulgare, fig. a.) Here you have another of the
same family, this delicate-branched fern with the brown stalk; the
masses of seed-cases are naked here also. This is the Three-branched
Polypody, or oak-fern. This wise book describes it as growing in moist
shady oak-woods. This is the very situation for it." (Polypodium,
Dryopteris, fig. 2.)
"There is another kind growing on that spongy clayey
bank," interrupted Esther. "I have always felt that it must be a
relation of that little one you call oak-fern."
She hastened to bring it. The triangular form of the
frond, with the forward bend of the two lowest branches or pinnae,
enabled me to identify this with the Beech Fern, (Polypodium
Phegopteris, fig. 3,) and the hairs upon the leaflets further
confirmed my judgment.
"I have another in my fernery," she said, "which
bears a still stronger resemblance to the oak-fern. It was brought from
a wood higher up the dale, and has a powdery appearance."
We repaired to the fernery. The powdery appearance,
firmer growth, and more erect habit, coincided with the description of
the Limestone Polypody. (P. Calcareum, fig 4.) Upon a drier and
more sunny spot in the fernery, I remarked the curious little Ceterach
or Scaly Spleenwort. I recognised it as a familiar ornament of a certain
old wall in Devonshire, and was pleased to see it on the present
occasion, because my new book placed it next to the Polypodys in order.
Whether the masses were wholly naked, and the ragged morsels about them
belonged only to the scales with which the back of the leaflets was so
freely covered, or whether they were the remains of rent covers I could
not decide, so contented myself with placing it with my Polypodys. (Ceterach
Officinarum, figs. 5 and 5.)
Without any hope of a favourable answer, I asked
Esther if she knew the Jersey Fern.
''Oh, yes," she said; ''Miss Hughes brought me a
plant from Jersey, and I have it inside a glass in the drawing-room."
It was so indeed. The little Jersey Fern (Qym-nogramma
Leptophylla, figs. 6 and c.) completed our group of
Polypodiaceae. She kindly gave me a little frond, upon which I could see
the naked seed-masses, and I retired to my own room to constitute a
press of old newspapers—a box-lid, and heavy stones—in which to preserve
specimens of my new study.