Ferns have been around for quite a long time. The earliest ferns in the archaeological record date to the Late Devonian period (C. 400-360 million years ago) but their numbers truly peaked during the carboniferous period (300mya). These unique organisms dominated the plant scene for over 200 million years, before Angiosperms (flowering plants) came in to steal the show.
Ferns are distinct from other plants because they do not flower, and do not have “seeds”. Instead, they reproduce via the release of spores, typically from small capsules on the underside of the fern frond. Spores are tiny single celled organisms and, if they land in the right spot (overwhelmingly they do not), the cell will begin to divide, eventually forming a tiny, single leafed plant called a prothallium. The prothallium then releases and fertilizes an egg which will develop into a fern, completing the cycle. Ferns can also extend their rhizomes (a stem like structure which is sometimes entirely underground) below the ground, allowing the fern to create additional, genetically identical plants or to sprout anew if damaged.
When ferns begin to grow they form what is known as a fiddlehead, this is the frond as it begins to unfurl. In the early spring, fiddleheads can be seen popping up all over the Refuge, some bright green and some covered in white, down-like hairs, they are truly whimsical looking. Many types of fiddlehead can be eaten, although certain species are toxic, and others may contain large amounts of carcinogens. Despite the dangers, many people still eat them and they are reputed to taste like almonds and asparagus. (This author is intrigued!) Read on for a few of the ferns you may spot on the Refuge.
Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea) is a very striking plant found in the eastern half of North America, which can grow to an impressive 5 feet tall. It favors swamp forests, marshes and shorelines and can be seen around the boardwalk behind the nature center at the Refuge. It produces two types of frond, one green and photosynthetic and another spore-producing frond that is conical, thin and rust colored.
Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is a smaller fern which may grow to about 2 feet and has dark green leaves. These ferns are evergreen and retain their leaves and coloring throughout the winter. The lower area of the stem is covered in small brown scales, and its leaves grow in a staggered fashion. Their spore producing leaves are typically at the very tips of the fronds. The Christmas Fern is not a favored food source for animals, but serves as cover for many ground dwelling birds including the Wild Turkey.
Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum) is one of the most common ferns on Long Island and is found across North America, including Alaska. They can grow up to 5 feet tall and thrive in the sandy soils of the Pine Barrens. This fern has a particularly deep rhizome, which allows them to sprout again after trauma. Deer, and sometimes people, are known to eat young bracken fiddleheads, which at this stage, resemble an eagle’s claw. Take a spring walk through the Refuge and see if you can spot and identify some fiddleheads and ferns!
By Kimberly Stever