One of Ohios oldest forms of plant life glows with a youthful blush this time of year, showing its true colors in our otherwise drab late-year landscape. Its the fern. Yes, the same potted plant that shyly sat in Aunt Priscillas parlor and remains a popular fixture in many homes to this day. But take a look outdoors, where the fern can really strut its stuff. Flaunting varying shades of green, the fern sticks out like a sore thumb in todays colorless countryside. Lush and tropical in appearance, ferns can be easily spotted on rock outcroppings and along the forest floor.
As testimony to their resilient and prolific nature, ferns have been a part of the Ohio landscape for millions of years, predating both dinosaurs and flowering plants. Today, more than 85 species of ferns grow wild in Ohio.
One of the most abundant is the Christmas fern
, found in nearly every Ohio county. Its common name harkens back to a time when pioneers used its evergreen leaves to make wreaths and other winter holiday decorations. With bright green fronds that grow to about one-foot in height, the Christmas fern is a welcome sight year round.
Did you know ancient ferns played a significant role in the development of large coal deposits now found in the Buckeye State? Once the dominant vegetation covering prehistoric Ohio, these carbon-based life forms decayed and became part of the process that long ago created coal.
Ferns do not produce a flower
|Fern frond with spores
, giving them a special place in the world of botany. In fact, it could be said that ferns have a dual personality. Like their flowering counterparts, they have a well-developed vascular system to carry water, minerals and nutrients throughout their roots, fronds and leaves. But thats where the similarity stops.
A flowering plant will first create a bloom and then produce a seed, which germinates into another adult plant. In a ferns world, lifes a little more complicated. Flowerless ferns have spores (not seeds) that develop within rust-colored patches located on the undersides of fronds. When mature, these patches release millions of dust-like spores into the atmosphere. Upon landing in a suitable place, such as a moist rock face, a spore sprouts into an intermediate plant known as a gametophyte
. It is in this stage that fertilization occurs and from which the adult fern grows.
Ferns grow in every corner of the state, thriving in moist, cool, shady environments. But the best place to look for ferns, according to state botanist Jim McCormac, is in southern and southeast Ohio
McCormac noted in particular that Hocking County is home to the states greatest diversity of ferns. The regions sandstone cliffs, deep hemlock-shaded gorges and ample water supply provide the perfect habitat for ferns, he said.
Among those to be admired is the aptly named fancy fern. This showy evergreen plant grows in a circular clump, featuring graceful two-foot long fronds. Living up to its common name, the fancy fern has light green foliage and an abundance of deeply cut, frilly leaves.
Ebony spleenwort is another highly visible fern, not only in the southeast, but across all of Ohio. Also considered an evergreen, its cluster of dark green, upright fronds are supported by glossy, reddish-brown stems. It thrives in rocky, wooded areas and averages 15 inches in height.
One rare fern most of us will never see is the Appalachian filmy fern, which McCormac describes as being on the edge of its range and hardly able to deal with Ohios cold winters. But one small colony no more than a foot square grows in almost total darkness under a shady recess of a Hocking County cliff face. Clinging to the roof of their rocky alcove, these tiny, delicate ferns have thin, almost translucent fronds with lacy and multi-lobed leaves.
Elsewhere around the state, Kent Bog State Nature Preserve in northeast Ohios Portage County has a good variety of ferns, including the regal royal fern. Preferring life along streams and lakeshores or in bogs and wet meadows, fronds of the royal fern grow 2 to 4 feet long. Another large fern to look out for is the cinnamon fern, which gets its name from the bright cinnamon-colored fertile fronds it produces in late spring. The plants young, uncurling fronds, known as fiddleheads, are a food source for wildlife such as ruffed grouse.
For further fern exploration, consider Cantwell Cliffs at Hocking Hills State Park as well as nearby Conkles Hollow State Nature Preserve. McCormac also suggests The Nature Conservancys Edge of Appalachia Preserve in Adams County and Lake Hope State Park in Vinton County.
While not all ferns are evergreen, most maintain their attractive foliage until truly severe cold weather sets in. That means theres still time to see for yourself the wonderful niche ferns fill in Ohios winter woodlands. But please remember that like most things living and growing wild in Ohio, ferns should only be observed and not disturbed. Aunt Priscilla would approve!