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Good Words 1860
A Summer's Study of Ferns


Chapter II.

"The feathery fern, the feathery fern!
It groweth wild, and it groweth free,
By the rippling brook and the wimpling burn,
And the tall and stately forest tree;
Where the merle and the mavis sweetly sing,
And the blue jay makes the woods to ring,
And the pheasant flies on whirring wing,
Beneath a verdurous canopy."—
ANNE PRATT.

1.—Polystichum Angulare. 2.—P. Aculeatum. 3.—P. Lobatum. 4.—P. Lonchitis. 5.—Woodsia Hyperborea.

Soon after my first essay in the study of ferns, I found an opportunity to steal away quietly into that sweet wood alone. Making my way along the tangled path to a much greater distance than I had penetrated with Esther, I passed under some precipitous rocks, and found myself in a shady part of the wood. Huge masses of the rock were strewn both in the narrow wood and along the bed of the little stream; revealing the secret, that peacefully as its gurgling waters now murmured on, yet in the heavy rains of autumn and winter, the whole of the gorge was apt to be converted into a river's bed, while the waters would sweep along with sufficient power to roll the huge boulders from the hills beyond. That one on which I seated myself was covered with stony pipes; it was, in fact, a mass of fossil coral; and in other of the boulders I recognised remains of the long extinct animal lilies; while many had lain so long among the trees there, that they were covered with moss, and the graceful ferns waved proudly over them, like cypresses over the honoured dead. I was geologist enough to know that another member of the same rock formation which contains the corals and animal lilies is replete with fossil ferns. These first created plants, these patriarchs of vegetation, form the chief part of the coal measures. Thus we may well regard ferns as the aristocracy of vegetable life, the "oldest family in the country." Certainly as we see them in England, they are very reduced and insignificant members of the ancient and honourable house; but they might well hold up their heads and share with the Bruce the motto ''Fuimus." Our bright winter fire blazes by their light; our cheerful gas owes much of its essence to them: so even in Britain they are worthy of all honour. But the fern valleys of Australia, where each plant is a forest tree, with such comeliness of form and lightness of foliage as fills the heart with admiring wonder, these proudly uphold the family grandeur in the present age. Truly the works of God not only were good, but are good.

I had come into the wood to search for one especial family of ferns, the next in order to the Polypodiaceae. The prickly shield-ferns, or Polystichums are of an elongated form, the Pinnae with leaflets on either side, very sharply scalloped, and the masses on the back of them with round covers, fastened in the centre. Beautiful ferns were growing in rich profusion around me, but these were more triangular in form, were twice branched or bi-pinnate, and had covers of a kidney shape over their little seed-masses. So I passed these over. Deep under the shade of some hazel bushes I discovered a fern of the long, narrow form, for which I was seeking. The leaflets were edged with sharp points, and the covers were round. (Fig a.) I found many plants of this fern. Some were hanging quite into the water, others nearly hidden on the hill-side amid close underwood. I remembered having heard a great botanist explaining the difference between two ferns very nearly alike. "One," he said, "when held up to the light shewed a clear line between every leaflet, while in the other the leaflets were so close at the base, as to shew no light between them." It struck me that these were the very ferns he had spoken of. I fancied a difference and longed to prove that I had found the angular prickly-shield fern, as well as the common prickly-shield fern. I held one up to the rich light of the setting sun; the leaflets seemed to run together—another, the same—a third, the same still. I selected one with finely-cut leaflets, which I had gathered close by; there was the clear line! This, then, was the angular prickly-shield fern, (Polystichum Angulare, fig. 1,) and the many fronds I had examined before were all of the common prickly-shield fern, (Polystichum Aculeatum, fig. 2.) Very near the brook, under the broken bank, I found a smaller species with larger leaflets, each with a distinct lobe at the base. It was of a fresher, fuller green; its cuttings were larger, and the leaflets grew less separate than in the other species. In all these particulars it answered to the lobed prickly-shield fern, (Polystichum Lobatum, fig. 4.) Returning by the fernery, I ventured to take a frond of the Holly Fern, which Esther had told me she had bought from Llanberis. In this there were no branches, (or pinnae,) and the leaflets were large, and edged with very sharp points. It grows handsomely and hardily in alpine situations, and is very fitly named Holly fern, (Polystichum Lonchitis, fig. 4.) The sight of this fern, half-grown as it looked, and ill at ease on the fernery, carried my mind back to a beautiful alpine wood near the Gemmi Pass. It grew there in a crown shape, the young fronds of a soft fresh green, while the mature ones vied with the myrtle in hue—richly tinted alpine flowers, variegated the sward around it, and snow-capped mountains rose on every side with their pine forests. Here and there a vast extent of tree roots only, bore testimony to an avalanche having swept over the spot, and carried away the mighty trunks, as the scythe would clear off a curve of grass upon a lawn.

I returned home in the fading light to lay siege to Esther for another frond from her precious Wardian case. The Woodsias formed the first group in the second fern family, the Aspidiaceae, in which the Polystichums ranked second; so my dear book informed me. I must, therefore, procure a specimen of Woodsia, or there would be an awkward gap in my fern collection. Alas! Esther entirely refused my request.

"Do you know," she said, "that the Woodsia can only be bought at a very dear price? I believe the rash gentleman who gave me this plant paid five shillings for it, and there are only three fronds, only one indeed full grown." She took off the glass, and brought the case close to the lamp. "There," she said, "you may look at it as much as you choose, and sketch it if you like, but I will not cut a frond nor any part of one."

I examined the plant carefully, and renewed the examination again by day-light. The pretty little plant was covered with brownish red hairs - these grew especially under the leaflets. The seed-masses were placed in a cover, the fringed edge of which seemed drawn up around them. The peculiarity of the little fern precluded any danger of mistaking it. It was undoubtedly the alpine Woodsia, (Woodsia Hyperborea, figs. 5 and 6.) I made a careful sketch of the plant, determining to place it in my collection until I could procure a real specimen. On laying my new group of ferns in their press, I found that the sheets that I had cut for the polypodys were too small to accommodate the large prickly-shield ferns. Both the common and angular one measured two full feet, and the lobed prickly fern was quite a foot long. I went to ask for some more newspapers, but my cousin kindly presented me with a package of the largest botanical paper, which he had procured from the town on purpose for me. It was nearly as long as the packing case lid, and suited my large ferns admirably. And it would just lie in the bottom of my packing case when I should make my next journey.

My new pursuit was becoming as a congenial friend to me: I loved God for making the beautiful things. I wondered at His gracious adaptation of them to the use of man. Marvellous, that the vegetation of a past age, when man was yet the dust of the earth, should be stored up for his use in the deep bowels of the rocks! Surely each little fern teaches us a lesson of reliance upon God. Life with all its joys is an emanation from Him, and He will supply the need of His people out of the richness of His treasures.


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