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Good Words 1860
A Summer's Study of Ferns


Chapter V.

"Where the water is pouring for ever she sits,
And beside her the Ousel and Kingfisher flits;
There, supreme in her beauty, beside the full urn,
In the shade of the rock, stands the tall Lady-Fern."

 

September set in ere I again succeeded in visiting my favourite wood. But Esther had agreed that I should do so if I would first go with her as far as an old stone bridge spanning our dear brook near to its juncture with the Swale, and from thence wend our way along the banks of the brook, now on one side and now on the other, without attempting to find any beaten path. I readily agreed to this, and we reached the bridge in question. Esther insisted on our going under it, and I was well rewarded for doing so. The archway formed the frame of a wild picture of waterfall and drooping trees, with such a wealth of golden flitting lights and deep still shadows, as might have been a rare prize to any artist, and from the sides and top of the arch hung tufts of the Black - stalked Spleenwort, and a very light feathery fern of a different character. Eagerly gathering and examining some of these fronds, I found the seed-masses covered by a delicate white envelope. It just answered the description of the Bladder Fern. In the more advanced specimens the cover was thrown off. The sharply cut leaflets, crisp dark stalk, and light foliage, made me feel satisfied that my new friend was the Brittle Bladder-Fern. (Cystopteris Fragilis, fig. 2.)

We had some difficulty in getting along the brook-side. Again and again we had to cross the stream, springing from one boulder to another. Where some rocks stood before an earthen bank, overshadowed by bushes, I espied some more of the Brittle Bladder-Fern, at least such I imagined it to be. But from its paler foliage, more slightly cut leaflets, and more pliant stalk, I decided it to be the Toothed Bladder- Fern, (Cystopteris Dentata, fig. 3.) Whether this be a different fern, or only a variety of the Brittle one, I cannot decide. I am inclined to think that its shaded position was the cause of it differing from the one I had gathered off the bridge.

"I have a fern something like that in my fernery," Esther said; "but it is broader and shorter, and the foliage is more dense. They told me it was something Dickieana, and I remembered it as a kind of feminine Dicky. I will give you a frond of it, if you like."

"Thank you; I shall like it extremely. If it be Dickie's Bladder-Fern, (Cystopteris Dickieana, fig. 4,) as, from your description, I believe it is, it will be valuable, as another member of the family which comes next to the Spleen-worts in order. I see there are two other species, the Alpine Bladder - Fern and the Mountain Bladder-Fern but there is no likelihood of our finding either the one or the other."

We made our way to the foot-bridge, and I would fain have followed the well-known path, but this, Esther said, would be a breach of treaty, and I must continue on the margin of the stream. We came to a very wet bank, where a spring sent a small quantity of water to swell the brook; for many yards the low ground near the brook-side was most unpleasantly swampy. I tried in vain to step only upon stones, I was obliged to trust to a cushion of moss, and my foot sank ankle-deep in water. But I could give no attention to the state of my boots, for immediately before me. rose

a group of tall ferns, of so light and feathery a form, and of so delicate a hue, that I felt a conviction at once strike me that this must be the Lady-Fern. Shining drops of morning dew hung heavily on its slender pimue, and weighed them down. The plant was nearly two feet high, a blush of crimson relieved the pale green of its stalk, and the grace of the group of fronds was exquisite. My glass shewed clearly the tiny shield-shaped mass-covers fastened by the side, instead of at the cut, as the Shield-Fern's covers were, to which family the elegant Lady-Fern bears so strong a resemblance. The fronds were lance-shaped. How it reminded me of Sir Walter Scott's description—

"Where the copse-wood is the greenest, "Where the fountain glistens sheenest, "Where the morning dew lies longest, There the Lady-Fern grows strongest." Esther told me that she knew that the Lady-Fern was common in that neighbourhood, (Athy-rkan Filix Fcemina, fig. 1 and a,) but it was rarer further north. She said it was as abundant in Ireland as the Common Brake in England, and used like it for packing fruit and fish.

Another path offering itself shortly after we had passed the little bay, and leading up the hill on the side of the stream near my cousin's house, Esther graciously permitted me to take it. The wood here was very thick, and the ground very steep. In the deep shade the three common Prickly-Ferns were growing luxuriantly, and the glossy fronds of the well-known Hart's-tongue contrasted charmingly with the lighter ferns around it. I gathered some specimens, as I was now ready for it in the order of my collection, and dutifully explained the peculiar characteristics to my lively pupil Esther.

"You see the seed-masses here are long and narrow, and the covering splits up the middle."

"Oh yes, I see all that; but there is no use in racking one's brains about the peculiarities of Hart's-tongue; every child that has once had it pointed out will be sure to know it again, whether there be any seed-masses, and covers, &c, or not. I have a plant of the curled Hart's-tongue in my fernery—the frond is quite frilled on each side, and I have seen one with the ends forked."

"Both these varieties are mentioned in our book, but they are not permanent, so I don't care about them. The common Hart's-tongue used to be valued as a medicine in England, and is still so in France and Scotland." (Scolopendrium Officinale, fig. 5 and c.) As we thus conversed, we reached the top of the wood, and climbing over a wall, found ourselves in a good footpath. Following this, and passing through gaps in the walls,—called stiles in that country, and certainly invented before crinoline,— we entered a little copse bordering on my cousin's grounds. Here, under the birch trees, grew ferns of an entirely different description to any I had yet seen. Three or four erect fronds, of about one foot in height, rose from the centre of the plant, the pinnae narrow, and bearing a line of fruit on either side of the mid-vein. Numerous fronds, with broader pinnce, lay flat around the plant, and many more were half recumbent. None of these drooping fronds had any seed upon them. I sat down on the dry moss which covered the ground, and taking out my book, began a careful investigation, Esther watching me curiously. "It is the Hard-Fern," I said, after a while, meeting her inquiring look. "There are fruitful and barren fronds,—the one erect, the other drooping. The seed is in lines, and the covering splits towards the mid-vein. It is sometimes called Fox-Fern, and I do think it has a foxy smell." {Bleck-num Boreale, fig. 6 and d.)

"You have been lucky to-day," said Esther. "Six new species are added to your collection. Pray do they come in the right order?"

"Yes, exactly right; they all belong to the great family Aspidiaceoe. But this is not a mere chance. I shut my eyes to the ferns I do not yet want; and if I begin to examine one that does not suit the gap I wish it to fill, I turn away from it as soon as I am convinced of its unsuitability. This is my way of keeping my head clear."

"Your plan is good for this neighbourhood," she replied, "which is so rich in ferns, that you can have what you please just when you want it. But you must not linger in filling up your collection, at least if you adhere to your determination of leaving next week."

I sighed at the heavy thought of parting, but I knew it must be. It would be time enough, however, to grieve over that when the day came; for I felt that the same plan which kept my head clear in study, that of confining my attention to the point presented at the moment, would keep my mind clear and my heart cheerful also, according to the infallible counsel of the Omniscient Teacher —"Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."


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