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Good Words 1860
A Summer's Study of Ferns


Chapter IV.

"But open eyes may well discern Samples of pretty British fern, Wallrue, Spleenworts, Black Maiden-hair, On that old wall, if scann'd with care.

"Then hasten, search the rocks and lanes, The meadow brooks, the heather plains, The hedge, the dingle, copse, and all, But don't forget the old stone wall."—C. S.

On a glorious day late in August, I found myself left to pass a solitary morning. Esther had gone out immediately after our early breakfast, without explaining what her errand might be, and her mother always remained in her room till the middle of the day. I brought my drawing materials and fern-book, and placed them by the Wardian case, off which I was bold enough to take the cover. I had readied the group of Spleenworts in the regular order, and not knowing whether any of these dainty little ferns were to be found in the neighbourhood, I addressed myself to Esther's house-collection. The oval seed-masses, with their covers opening along one side, had enabled me to ascertain that three of those in the case were Spleenworts. The largest of these might be four or five inches high, with leaflets, broad and irregularly indented, placed alternately up the stalk, which was of a dark brown colour. This I decided must be the Rock Spleenwort, (Asplenium Fonta-num, fig. 8.) The second, scarcely above two inches high, with its forked fronds and linear seed-masses, could not be otherwise than the Forked Spleenwort, and I remembered Esther telling me that she had got it among the rocks on Arthur's Seat, {Asplenium Septentrionale, fig. 3.)

The third was, I knew, a very scarce one. I remember seeing a specimen that had been brought from Wales. Its slender form and few forked leaves placed alternately along the stalk, left no room for doubting it to be the Alternate-leaved Spleenwort, (Asplenium Alternifolium, fig. 4.) I had examined all these plants, compared them with the descriptions in my book, and begun to sketch them, when Esther returned.

"You are surely not taking specimens for your collection off my dainty pets!" she exclaimed.

"No," I answered meekly, "only making drawings of these three Spleenworts. This is the next group we have to study, and I don't know whether any of these small ferns are found here. The characteristic of the family is, that the seed - masses are placed in thicker or thinner lines, the cover opening towards the middle vein."

"We are going an excursion," she replied, putting my pencils together for me. "I have been to get ponies, and papa will escort us. There is a beautiful waterfall ten miles higher up the valley, and there are nice little ferns growing out of the rock there which probably belong to this very family. Make haste and get ready, while I cut some sandwiches to take with. us. You deserve the treat for contenting yourself with taking the portraits of my pet ferns."

I made all the haste possible, and was ready a quarter of an hour before the ponies arrived. I took up my book to see what I should be likely to find. Sea Spleenwort—no, that only grew near the spray of the sea. Lance-shaped Spleenwort— no, that is a Cornish fern. How beautiful, the little sketches of them in my book were! The verdant hue and graceful contour of the spray-loving species, with its broad leaflets—how 1 wished for it! (Asplenium Marinum, fig. 5.) Nor did I covet less the finer, smaller foliage of the Lance-shaped Spleenwort, (Asplenium Lanceolatum,)

But I resolutely turned away my thoughts from what was beyond my reach, and set forth on my expedition with an eager, hopeful heart.

The ride up that beautiful valley was enjoyable in the extreme. My kind cousin told me to call a halt whenever I wished to pluck anything. The ponies, he said, would stop anywhere, and for any given time. We had passed through two villages, and a pretty parsonage house was in sight on the other side of the river, when I espied some plants growing in an old wall. In a moment I had jumped off my pony. My cousin smiled, and offered me his knife to assist in extracting my treasures from their stony hiding-places. Some fine fronds, of a beautiful dark green colour, with alternate pinnae and irregularly cut pinnules, were already in my hand. The frond was broad at its base, but tapered off very elegantly, forming the figure of a very acute triangle. It only needed the long seed-masses at the back to assure me that this was the Maiden-hair Spleenwort or Black Maiden-hair, (Asplenium Adiantum-nigrum, fig. 1.) I had seen the fern before, and its graceful form was familiar to me. By its side grew a pretty little fern with black stalks and little oval dark-green leaflets; this I quickly ascertained to be the Black-stalked Spleenwort. The long seed-masses lay in faultless order on the backs of the little leaflets, (A. Trichomanes.)

My companions seemed scarcely less pleased than myself, that our excursion had already been productive of new specimens, and we pressed on cheerily. The valley soon became more wild. We passed through a very sequestered village called Gunnerside, and ascended some rising ground, from whence we had a splendid view of the wide hill country stretching far away to the very borders of Westmoreland. The road led along the edge of one of the hills. We passed the mouth of a lead mine, and the miners whom we met greeted us with cordial good-will. A very rough road led down the hill. At last we crossed a most romantic bridge which spanned the peat-stained waters of the Swale, and tying our ponies to a gate, we scrambled along a rocky wood, and then climbed down a very precipitous bank to the foot of a deafening waterfall. The narrow gorge, shut in with rocks and wood, was wild and lovely in the extreme, and for a few moments I forgot to seek for ferns. Esther unpacked the basket, and we ate our sandwiches with great relish, drinking from a little spring which was bubbling from the rock.

"Look about quickly," said my cousin, "and find what is to be found, for I wish to return in good time that I may shew you the cockle quarry."

I began a close searching of the rocks, and was soon rewarded by finding several beautiful plants of the rare Green-stalked Spleenwort, (Asplenium Viride.) It so closely resembles the Black-stalked Spleenwort, that no one who knows the one can be in doubt about the other. The only apparent difference is in the colour of the stalk. The leaflets of the Green-stalked Spleenwort are rather broader than those of the Black-stalked, and the latter is a stouter, stronger plant. But these matters would only be noted by a close observer.

We mounted our ponies to return, crossing the moor from Gunnerside instead of keeping to the road. Arrived at the quarry, I found that the stone was a conglomerate of the shells of the Giant Lima, called in the language of the country, Cockle. Here in the crevices of the rock flourished the petted little Wall Hue, (Asplenium Euta-mu-raria.)—a plant that will only grow where it pleases. All this very attractive family of ferns haunt stony places, growing out of fissures in the rocks and walls, from whence it is next to impossible to remove their roots. It is a pretty sight to behold these graceful plants lavishing their beauty upon the otherwise barren rock, or adorning the crumbling wall. It proves that God will leave no corner of His creation without its appropriate and harmonising beauties,—the ancient rocks with their entombed organisms rejoice in new life, as the stone snail and bright insect creep across them, and the verdant fronds of the Spleenwort kiss their aged surface at every motion of the air. The smiling verdure delights the eye, and brings to the heart the words of sacred song—

"O all ye green things upon earth, bless ye the Lord,
Praise Him, and magnify Him for ever."


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