10 Neat Things About Ferns
by Shauna Dobbie
by Dorothy Dobbie

The Local Gardener magazines, Ontario Gardener, Manitoba Gardener and Alberta Gardener, are published by Pegasus Publications Inc.

Drawing on her 30 years' experience as a senior executive in the magazine publishing industry, Dorothy launched Manitoba Gardener in 1998, initially running the business out of her home. Two years later, Dorothy's daughter Shauna, living in Ontario, jumped into the fray with Ontario Gardener. And two years after that, they started Alberta Gardener. Visit us at and register for our "Ten Neat things" newsletter. Watch Shaw TV for garden tips and Listen to CJOB for the Gardener Sundays at 9:08

June 17, 2019

1. Gourmet ferns.

Fiddleheads, the unfurled new growth of ostrich or cinnamon ferns, are a delicacy only available for a few weeks each year. The first time a person pays a small fortune for a pint of these at the farmers' market, they might be awfully disappointed because after the ferns are steamed they don't taste at all like what that individual has been served in restaurants. The trick is to boil the fiddleheads twice, changing the water after the first 10 minutes. Never eat them raw or undercooked; they contain toxins that are inoculated by cooking.

2. Evil ferns.

Giant salvinia is an invasive floating water fern. Originally from Brazil, it has escaped into waterways in some southern U.S. states. It can reproduce through pieces breaking off, so that a population of giant salvinia can actually double in under a week. Because salvinia forms a thick mat on the surface of the water, it blocks out light and oxygen, destroying the eco system.

3. Climbing ferns.

The ferns of one genus are vines. The fronds have a very thin midrib that winds around objects and grows to heights as great as 90 feet. It, too, is invasive and is choking out natural areas of the southern United States.

4. Air-polluting ferns.

Prehistoric ferns are among the life forms that have been underground for millions of years and become fossil fuels like coal. Burning these fuels releases carbon back into the atmosphere. Better to leave that coal in the ground and wait until it becomes diamonds!

5. Earth-cleaning ferns.

Some ferns absorb heavy metals like arsenic from infected sites. Pteris vittata, sometimes called brake fern, is one such plant. Finally, something good!

6. Baby ferns.

This is the craziest thing about ferns: they don't make seeds. People sometimes say that the spores are seeds, but they aren't. Spores germinate into a different plant called a prothallus. The prothallus has male and female parts. Cells from the male part actually have little tails and swim through moisture to the female part (ideally of another prothallus) where they fertilize an egg. That fertilized egg, like a seed, becomes a fern.

7. Spores.

Chances are you've never seen a fern spore. They are microscopic. Those dots you see on the backs of some fronds are sori (sorus is the singular). The sori contain sporangia and the sporangia contain spores.

8. Sori-free fronds.

On some fern species, all fronds have sori, while on others some fronds bear sori and are fertile while some fronds do not and are infertile. There is one hybridized fern sold as a houseplant that has no sori on any fronds. It has had the reproductive means bred out of it because some consumers don't like the look of the little dots.

9. Tree ferns.

Some ferns grow with the fronds coming out of a trunk rather than the ground. Most of them are tropical, though some grow in temperate rainforests in the southern hemisphere. Since the trunk raises the fronds up higher, theoretically, tree ferns should have the advantage of spreading their spores further. For unknown reasons, though, different species of tree ferns tend to be rather local in their distribution; some are even endangered. Nature is not big on theory.

10. Flowering ferns.

Since ferns don't make seeds they don't make flowers. In some eastern European folklores, though, ferns were said to make flowers that people rarely got to see. In Finland, possession of the seeds of a fern flower could enable you to be invisible. In some Slavic traditions, finding a fern flower could give you the power to understand animal speech.

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