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Good Words 1860
A Summer's Study of Ferns


"No, you shall haunt that wood no longer!" exclaimed Esther, as, having crossed the footbridge over the brook, I turned to take the path to the right which led directly up the little wooded dell. "I am going to take you on to the hills to-day, that you may experience the invigorating influence of the moor air."

I sighed heavily. Going regularly on with my dear fern-book, I had come to a group of ferns called Lastra, or Shield - Ferns, and characterised by having a kidney-shaped cover over their seed-masses. I remembered the elegant ferns that waved over the fossil rocks, and I knew that they had covers of this shape. But Esther was bent on my going on the moor!

A noble crown of graceful fern was growing beside the ascending path; and I observed it just as I had groaned over my small disappointment. I gathered a frond. Instead of it being triangular in form, like those I was longing for in the wood, it resembled rather the prickly ferns; but it was broader than they in the middle, and tapered very gracefully to apex and the base. Plentiful seed-masses were sprinkled over the backs of the slightly-notched leaflets, and, upon using my lens, I found that the covers were kidney-shaped. This, then, must be what is commonly called the Male-Fern, (Las-tra Filix-mas, figs. 1 and a.)

1__Lastraea Filix-mas. 2.Lastra. Oreopterls. 3.L. Dilitati
4.L. Spinulosa. 5;L. Thelypteris. 6.L. Rigida.

I called Esther's attention. "Here, you see, is a member of the third group of the second family of ferns. The seed - masses being covered and placed on the back of the frond prove it to belong to the Aspidiace, and the covers being kidney-shaped proves it a Lastra. This is the commonest of the Shield-ferns.''

Esther was greatly interested. She plunged into the thicket, and brought out a handful of the very fern that my heart was longing for.

"This is the most graceful fern we have, at least according to my fancy," she said. "The hue of its foliage is most beautiful in spring, and even now its freshness is charming. Give me your glass. Yes, you see the covers are kidney-shaped."

''They are less decidedly so than in the Male-Fern, but I am satisfied that this is also a Lastra. You observe that there are a double set of pinn little pinn branching from the larger pinnae, these are called pinnules. The frond is triangular in form, the base being nearly as broad as the sides are long. This is the Spreading Shield-Fern, Lastra Dilitata," (fig. 3.)

By a little gate we passed from the steep wood to a yet steeper pasture; but as from time to time we paused for breath, the view that we turned to behold became more and more extensive and beautiful. The pretty wood at our feetmy wood with here and there a glimpse of its noisy stream, the sloping lawn around my cousin's house, and the wild rocks and woods topped by purple moors above itall this lay right before us; while to the left, bounded by hills grayer and yet more gray, stretched the wide valley of the Swale.

As we passed along the foot-road across the fields, I referred again to my book. Within it lay a fern which covered its page, and a part of a frond of another kind. These had come in by the post that very day from a friend in Cheshire, to whom I had written with much enthusiasm regarding my new pursuit. I had been examining them when called upon by Esther to prepare for our ramble, and so had laid them within the book and brought them with me. Esther inquired what they were.

"This," I said, referring to my friend's letter, "is a fern principally found on mountains in the north of England. This frond is from a plant which grew on Ingleborough. On the lower pinnae the leaflets are opposite, on the upper alternate. The general form of the frond is that of a long-triangle ; but sometimes the lower pinnae are shorter than the middle ones, and so make it more in the form of the Male-Fern. Its kidney-shaped covers prove it to be a Lastrsea, (fig. 6.) This, of which there is only a portion, comes from a bog on Knutsford Moor, near to where my friend lives. It grows in wet ground; hence its name, Marsh Shield-Fern, (Lastra Thelypteris, fig. 5.) Some of the fronds are barren, and some fertile. The fertile fronds appear first, and the seed-masses are placed between the mid-vein and the margin of the leaflet. In the earlier stages of their growth, a small, white, kidney-shaped cover lies upon the centre of each seed-mass; but this falls off before the seed attains maturity. The rhizoma is slender and creeping, and the stalk long and slight. The form of the frond is what is called linearthat is, much longer than broad, and tapering to the ends."

Emerging on to the moor, the air seemed laden with the sweet perfume of the Ling. The rich purple was varied by patches of verdant green; and upon reaching one of these, I found two ferns decidedly different from those that I had hitherto become familiar with. One bore a great resemblance to the Spreading Shield-Fern; but it was smaller, less decidedly triangular, and the paler foliage was much curled. It answered the description of the Prickly-toothed Shield-Fern, (Lastra Spinulosa, fig. 4.) The covers, though small, were undoubtedly kidney-shaped.

The other fern was of the gracefully sloping contour of the Male-Fern. The pinn grew quite to the bottom of the stalk, each becoming smaller than the last by almost imperceptible gradations. The seed-masses, with their kidney-shaped covers, were arranged in a faultless line around the edge of the leaf, while, in the more advanced fronds, the extreme margin of the leaflet was turned back over the seed-masses. A line down the centre of the rose-tinted stalk gave a peculiar delicacy to its appearance, and sweet odour hung about the plant, which ever must remind those who have once inhaled it of hills and moors. Every point of the description answered to that of the Heath Shield-Fern, (Lastra Oreopteris, fig. 2.) And on the bare ground at its foot, contrasting strikingly with its delicate green, grew a plot of the scarlet cup-moss, its brilliant little knobs of red fruit crowning the glaucous, hornlike branches of the small plant.

It was a little landscape of rare beauty; and I tried to grasp it more entirely, and to love it better, than the wide prospect of hill, and wood, and valley beyond it. Truly, it is a weakness of our mortal sense to imagine a thing trifling because it is small. The vast peat-mosses, which furnish fuel for thousands, are formed of an insignificant plant; whilst mountain-ranges are composed of the skeletons of animals too small to be perceived by the naked eye. A tiny flower or insect testifies the wondrous wisdom of the Creator, and raises the heart of the earnest-minded Christian observer in adoring gratitude to Him.

"A thing is great or little only to a mortal's thinking, But, abstracted from the body, all things are alike important."

That day had brought in a rich harvest to my collectionsix different species of the third group of Aspidiace! Truly, the Shield-Ferns must ever henceforward be as old friends to me. The Spreading Shield-Fern was nearly three feet high, the Male-Fern at least two, while the Prickly-toothed and Heath-Ferns were but little short of that height. The Rigid Shield-Fern was not quite one foot in stature; but the portion of the Marsh-Fern in my book gave indication of its vying with the Male-Fern in height.

"I like collecting with you," Esther said, "for you don't go on to another group till you are quite clear about the present one. What will be the next ferns that you seek?"

"I shall tell you when time and opportunity for seeking them comes."


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