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Good Words 1860
A Summer's Study of Ferns


Chapter I.

"On every side spring ferns, whose feathery leaves
Seem wafted by the perpetual breath of God."

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 application.

"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 this description."

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." (Fig. a.)

"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.

"How exquisite is the beauty of these plants!" I thought, as I carefully placed them in the press. "The freshness and varied shade of their hues, the grace and lightness of their form, the fitness of their structure for the dwelling to which they are destined—this firm Common Polypody for the barren rock, this frail Oak-Fern for the deep shade, this small Jersey Fern for the warm soft climate! Surely we cannot dwell on this part of God's creation without feeling our hearts glow and our souls respond to the words of inspiration, 'And God saw all that he had made, and behold it was very good.'"


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