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Good Words 1860
A Summer's Study of Ferns


Chapter VI.

"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 these Brakes."

"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 secret."

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 it.

"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 already.

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?

I felt very hopeful. So much help is ever sent to those who engage patiently and earnestly in a pursuit. In all God's creation, progress is the universal rule—the plant pauses not in its growth, nor the air in its course, nor the river in its flow. God's angels speed hither and thither on His errands; activity of mind and body is the necessity of all creatures. In activity God blesses His children; He gives them books to read—His book of nature as well as His book of revelation ; and the helps that the humble student finds are not mere "happy charms," as we often name them, but aids from the great Master, whispered hints of explanation, gentle indications of illustration. Much does He thus help us to learn on earth : the rest shall be revealed in heaven.


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