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.
To return to the Nature Bulletins Click Here!
Update: June 2012