Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 60   April 6, 1946
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Clayton F. Smith, President
Roberts Mann, Supt. of Conservation

Millions of years ago, in the Carboniferous Age, there were innumerable kinds of ferns and mosses. The giant tree ferns formed vast forests covering most of the earth and it is their remains that largely form our coal deposits. Of the 4,599 species of fern plants in the world today, only 26 are found in the Chicago region, principally because of the lack of rocky cliffs and ravines. Only a few are common The best places to see and study ferns are in the Fern Grotto of the Garfield Park Conservatory and at Morton Arboretum.

In olden times ferns were feared. They had no visible seeds yet, they sprang up abundantly. The belief was that there must be invisible seeds that some people, and witches, put these seeds in their shoes and became invisible. Midsummer's night, June 21, was a witches' night when the ferns shed their seeds, so everybody cowered indoors. No wonder! Julius Caesar in 58 A. D. found that the Druid priest s in England made human sacrifices of people caught out after dark, burning them alive in large wicker baskets.

It was not until 1520 that a German, Hieronymus Bock, spread white sheets under ferns, caught the dust-like spores that fell from the brown patches on the underside of the leaves (or fronds), and succeeded in raising ferns from these spores.

When a spore, sometimes carried by wind for many miles, falls on favorable ground, it develops into a flat, green, heart-shaped body about the size of your little fingernail. They may be found, this time of year, in shady moist places. Egg cells and sperm cells develop in little cases on the underside of the prothallus, which unite into fertilized eggs producing fern plants. In the spring the common varieties appear as hairy, brownish-green balls clustered together on the ground. As they grow they gradually unroll, the curled -up frond on top of the stem resembling the head of a fiddle.

They are decorative plants, in the house or out-of -doors, and a few have value for food or medicine. But now you know the secret of the gremlins and the little man who wasn't there.

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