Ferns, Nature’s Colonists

Tom Poland

Posted June 28, 2022

By Tom Poland
A Southern Writer

Ferns bless us with classic Southern settings but doing so isn’t always easy. Random winds pick up fern spores and scatter them, their destiny determined by fate. Many end up lost at sea. Some fall on barren places and perish.

Many, however, get lucky.

In the Cherokee’s “Place Of The Lost” rains feed streams and rivers that thunder over the Blue Ridge Escarpment. Waterfalls pound rocks, kicking up fine spray. The ceaseless misting creates a microhabitat of spray cliffs cloaked with ferns. The ferns here splash rocks with green, the color of life.

Spores colonized this palmetto down coastal Georgia way.

Spores get scattered by the wind, in effect flying most everywhere… In the Lowcountry you’ll see resurrection ferns carpeting oak limbs, and you’ll see them climbing palmettos. Unlike their oak-limb preferential ways, they enwrap palmetto trunks in lush, billowy green blankets.

Resurrection ferns bring the tropics and gushes of orchids, bromeliads, and mosses to mind. They’ve been here for 400 million years. I like ferns, those primitive plants that have a knack for enduring. Long ago I’d dig up woodland ferns in eastern Georgia and replant them along the edges of Mom’s yards. Their moistened undersides hinted of black pepper and yielded an earthy, rich, uplifting fragrance, the scent of life rising from death. Long they carried on despite my giving them a new ZIP code. In this case, the hand of man helped them colonize Mom’s yards.

We sold Mom’s place in 2020, and I dare never go back lest I ruin memories, but I feel in my heart those ferns I transplanted during my college years still live. In my mind and heart, they still add their verdant green to the yards she loved so much.

By air, however, that’s their preferred mode of colonization. And so I think of ferns as nature’s colonists. Their spores sail a sea of air. And why call these windblown plants resurrection ferns? Think of rain falling onto a desert where plants wither. In a state of desiccation, long brown and curled, they assume their notion of a fetal position. Then a miracle, a rare cloudburst soaks the desert and green banishes brown. The ferns resurrect themselves in cool flames of uncurling green fronds.

So, we call them resurrection ferns because in dry weather the fronds curl, brown, and appear dead, but when blessed rain falls, they green and spring back to life. An extraordinary plant, it can lose about 75 percent of its water content during a typical dry period. When extreme drought settles in, it can lose up to 97 percent of its water. Researchers estimate a resurrection fern can survive 100 years in a dry state. I find such things extraordinary. I’m sure you do too.

Now, if these resilient ferns colonize a tree of yours, don’t fret. They come to do no harm, just as Spanish moss does no harm. Ferns don’t act as kudzu does, covering everything in its path and choking the life out of it. No, they add greenery to the tree, to life itself.

And then there’s that Southern setting thing. You know, live oaks draped in Spanish moss, with broad long limbs graceful and green arching toward Mother Earth, creating velvety green tunnels where limbs touch Earth’s face. It’s as pretty as a picture and often photographed indeed it is.

Epiphytic Polypodium polypodioides is native to the United States, a progeny of the hot and humid Southland, which folks classify as subtropical. Our ferns agree with that. And Sir David Attenborough agrees. He refers to our world as the Green Planet, and the resurrection fern does it part to color it in the Lowcountry, in the mountains, and in our green plant dreams and memories of what once was and God willing still is.

Tom Poland’s website at www.tompoland.net

Email Tom about most anything at at tompol@earthlink.net 

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