"He bids the wind sweep over the Brakes,
And they rise and fall like the green waves of ocean;
At His breath the leaf of the Maidenhair shakes,
With the Aspen's tender and quivering motion;
The Filmy-moss hides He in deepest shade,
And the Bristle-fern fronds He baptizes with spray:
Par o'er all creation His grace is display'd
From the grass on the field to the vast Milky-way."
My heart was still yearning for my own dear wood in
Yorkshire, when a bright boy entered my old friend's room in our
lodgings at Ilfracombe, and tossing an armful of common Brakes on the
table, he said, ''There, Miss Fernlover; you told me yesterday you had
rather have ferns than sea-anemones, so I have brought some for you.
Here is a letter, too, which the postman gave me at the door. Now,
surely you ought to thank me. Tell me whatever you find interesting in
"I do thank you, indeed, Willie," I replied, "and I
will tell you as much as I know about this fern. It is a great plague in
some land, growing very deep into the ground; but frequent mowing will
in time kill it. When its branches decay, they form good manure,
especially for potatoes. Sometimes this fern is burned, and then its
ashes are used in the manufacture of glass, and in some places it is
burned for fuel. The poor people in some parishes make beds of it, and
lay their children upon them when they have a complaint called the
rickets. It is very interesting to me that the seeds are contained in a
line at the back of the leaflets, near to the margin, which rolls back
and covers them; but you will not care for this. (Pteris Aquilina,
figs. 1 and a.) Take your knife and cut the stalk across.
Could you not fancy that it is a tiny picture of an oak tree? Now, cut
it in a slanting direction, and you might suppose the mark to be a
figure of a spread eagle. Its Latin name, Aquilina, is given to
it on account of this fancied resemblance." .
Willie was interested. "Fern seed," he said; "I
thought ferns had no flowers; and how can they have seed?"
''That I cannot explain, Willie. The seed grows on
the backs of the leaves in great abundance. It used to be imagined that
those 'Who gathered fern-seed walked invisible; and people used to go
out on St John's Eve to collect it with great ceremony."
"I wish it was really so," replied the boy, laughing.
"What jolly fun one might have if we could go about and be invisible!
There is a fern which grows somewhere hereabouts, which is much prettier
than those Brakes. Only the donkey-women know about it, and they won't
divulge the secret, because they make so much by selling the fern. But I
will try if I can coax my favourite old woman to let me into the
Away went the good-natured boy, and I eagerly opened
Esther's letter. Kind Esther! She enclosed a nice specimen of the
Parsley-Fern, which she had found in abundance, she said, during a tour
she was now taking in the Lake Country. She was taking some home for her
fernery, but she feared being able to keep it alive, as the people said
it hated limestone, and could only endure primitive rocks!
I hastened to examine my treasure. The round
seed-masses were placed on the margin of the back of the leaflet, and
the edge rolled round to cover them. Some of the fronds were barren, and
some fruitful. The fruitful were taller and more erect than the barren.
All this agreed perfectly with the description in Esther's book, and the
general resemblance of the fern to the plant of which it was the
namesake, left no doubt of it being the Parsley-Fern, (Allosorus
Crispus, figs. 2 and b.)
I had scarcely finished my examination of the pretty
little plant, when Willie returned with an excited face. ''I can't get
the secret out of my old hag," he exclaimed, "because she says her
comrades would be ready to take her 'poor dear life' if they found her
out; but she has given me a nice plant for you. She says it would be
impossible for you to get it for yourself, as she has to creep along the
edge of a precipice, and crawl through strange holes among the cliffs,
only fit for a cat to climb to come to the place where it grows."
I was gratified beyond measure, and gazed with
triumph upon my elegant plant. Willie waited to be told something about
"People used to make a decoction of the juice of this
plant, mixed with that of some other herbs, and call it Capillaire.
It was opposed greatly to promote the growth and beauty of ladies'
hair. The seed-masses here are disposed in crescent-like masses at the
back of the fan-shaped leaflets, and the stalks are so slender that they
tremble in every breath of air. I am more grateful than I can express
for the plant, dear Willie. I just wanted it to complete my collection
of the great group of ferns called the Aspidiaceoe." [Adiantum
Gapillus-venerh, figs. 3 and c.)
Willie looked content, and took his leave. I
contrived to pay the poor donkey-woman for her fern, and meant to carry
the plant with me on my travels; but an obstacle came in the way of this
plan. My kind sickly old friend was leaving Ilfracombe. I had come to
take care of her while her daughter went forward to prepare their home
for her reception. "You cannot take that fern into Cornwall with you, my
dear," she said to me. "I meant to do so, my dear madam," I replied,
"unless you would like to have it."
"Well, my love, as you are so kind, I won't say no. I
want a remembrance of Ilfracombe, and I can't bear slimy things such as
sea-anemones, but that pretty fern will just suit me. Take a piece off
to put in your collection—that is only fair—and I will give you some
dried ferns, which I don't know what to do with."
I accepted her terms and her dried plants, feeling
very heroic in parting with my Maidenhair. My self-denial was rewarded
far beyond my expectation or deserts, for the pressed collection
contained both the Filmy-Ferns and the Bristle-Fern.
These are distinguished from my old friends the
Aspidiaceae by having the fruit situated in a receptacle on the edge of
a frond. Their family-name is Hymenophyllaceae. The Bristle-Fern
was very scarce, I well knew. I had only heard of it as favouring the
Irish lakes. The bristle-crowned seed-vessels placed in the fork made by
the deeply cut leaflets, easily distinguishes it. (Tricho-manes
Brevisetum,figs. 6 and e.)
I had entertained very little more hope of possessing
a specimen of Wilson's Filmy-Fern than of the
Bristle-Fern, though had heard of the atter being found both in Wales
and Westmoreland; and now, by this wonderful stroke of good luck, I held
a fine frond of the moss-like fern in my hand. A very pronounced vein
traverses each leaflet in these tiny plants. The leaflets are very
transparent, and the seed-vessels look like tiny urns, supported on the
angle formed by the juncture of the frond and the pinnae. "Wilson's
Filmy-Fern is larger than the Tunbridge one, and the leaflets lean to
one side, (Hymenophyllum Wilsoni, fig. 4.) Its seed-vessels are
cut in two segments. The Tunbridge Filmy-Fern grows in many localities.
Its seed-vessel is more open and much jagged at the edges, (Hymenophyllum
Tunbridgense, figs. 5 and d.) I had promised myself to find
it when I visited Cornwall; but, lo! I had come into possession of it
Thus far my study had progressed, and my summer's
holiday was not yet ended. I had no longer any difficulty in recognising
any member of the family of the Polypodiaceae with their naked
seed-masses. The extensive group of the Aspidiaceas, with their
seed-vessels covered and situated on the back of the frond, had unveiled
its mysteries to me; and the Urn-bearing Hymenophyl-laceae were, at any
rate, my acquaintance. Ere I should return home, I must make one more
visit, and collect one more fern family. Should I succeed in Cornwall as
well as I had succeeded hitherto?