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Ginny's neighbor's Ebony Spleenworts - 
                  photo by Stibolt

Ginny's neighbor's Ebony Spleenworts

I Covet my Neighbors’ Ebony Spleenworts!
By Ginny Stibolt

I love ferns—all kinds of ferns. There’s something relaxing and refreshing about enjoying these woodsy plants just for their fronds, since ferns are so primitive they do not flower. The evergreen Ebony Spleenwort (Asplenium platyneuron) flourishes here in northern Florida. I transplanted some to several areas, including my rain gardens.  Even though my transplants are doing well, they pale next to the lush displays in some of my neighbors’ yards. 

(Update: Those ferns that I liked were not the delicate spleenworts that I knew in Maryland, but the invasive tuberous swordfern (Nephrolepis cordifolia ). I removed my new populations as soon as I discovered this and I have continued to remove it in the wooded areas between our house and our neighbor's. I've informed my neighbor as well, but he's taken no action to remove his ferns.)

More fern information: Fern life cycle

The fern life cycle has two stages: the gametophyte and the sporophyte. The one we notice is the sporophyte, so named because it produces spores—the dust-like, one-celled particles—by the millions. Spores are produced in sacs called sori (plural of sorus), located on fertile fronds that may or may not resemble sterile fronds, depending on the species. The unequal drying of the alternate thick and thin-walled cells that line the outer surface of the sori causes miniature explosions to disperse the spores. At that size scale, the expulsion of fern spores is said to be one of the more explosive events in nature.

When the wind-blown spores land on suitable places, such as moist soil or cracks in rocks, they germinate into small, heart-shaped gametophytes with male and female parts. Gametophytes are always small because they have no vascular parts and must absorb any moisture directly by osmosis. The male parts produce flagellated sperm that need moisture to move. A new sporophyte is the product of that fertilization.

Given this complex process, is it any wonder that ferns normally spread via well-developed rhizomes? Ferns multiply asexually and most ferns you purchase have been divided from cultivated fern stocks. You may multiply your ferns by dividing them. It’s a mathematical oxymoron.

Cinnamon ferns with their fertile fronds -  photo by Stibolt

Cinnamon Fern with its fertile fronds.

The fronds of the ferns are normally divided into leaflets. Singly pinnate fronds such as the Spleenworts and Resurrection Ferns have one main stem with rows of leaflets on either side. A doubly pinnate frond means that the leaflets are divided again into sub-leaflets and so forth.

Other ferns

Many of the ferns that grow here also grow in Maryland, so they are not strangers. Here are some of my other favorites:

The Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), a large fern growing to three or four feet under the right conditions, sports its cinnamon stick-type, spore-laden, fertile fronds in both the fall and the spring here. The fertile fronds wilt away after the spores are released leaving the green fronds for us to enjoy until frost when they die back for the winter. Of course, winter is much shorter here in Florida, so we have a longer fern cycle. In Maryland I never saw fertile fronds in the fall. This beauty can survive in nearly full sun to full shade, but it’s happiest in moist soil. I’d categorized this as a specimen fern, not a ground cover like the Spleenworts.

Royal Fern with fertile fronds - photo by Stibolt

The Royal Fern prefers wet feet.

Another large, specimen fern, the Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis), is truly regal in its size, growing to three to five feet—even larger than its close relative, the Cinnamon Fern. The Royal Fern’s doubly pinnate fronds have more widely spaced leaflets making it appear lacier. 

The fertile sections of this fern appear at the top of the main fronds. After the spores are released the tops will fall off. The Royal Fern doesn’t seem to be as tolerant of full sun as either the Spleenworts or the Cinnamon Ferns, but partial sun is fine and it does best with its feet wet.



Netted Chain Ferns create a specatacular 
 mass - Photo by Stibolt

Chain Ferns are a good groundcover.

The Netted Chain Fern (Woodwardia aerolata) is a wonderful groundcover forming dense, one-foot high mats in the forests. It grows in full shade to mostly sun. Its fertile fronds start out like a regular leaf, but then curl inward, turn a rich, shiny brown, and grow taller than the sterile fronds.

Its fronds are singly pinnate meaning that its leaflets are not again divided. This provides a less lacy and courser appearance than most other ferns. In planning a garden-space, you want to provide a variety of textures.

Bracken Ferns (Pteridium aquilinum) inhabit much drier locations than most other ferns, and one source stated that Brackens are the most abundant fern world-wide.  Some of the Bracken clones are estimated to be hundreds of years old.

Bracken Ferns are fire tolerant - Photo by Stibolt

Brackens, once started, can live anywhere.

Farmers consider Brackens to be noxious weeds because they have aggressive rhizomes that sprout new plants from small pieces, resist fire and are toxic to grazing animals. 

Bracken fronds are triply pinnate and are more triangular in shape than most ferns. "Pteridium" is a diminutive of "Pteris", Greek for "fern", and "aquilinum" is from the Latin for "eagle" and refers to the wing-like fronds of this fern.

Over the years, I’ve found it impossible to transplant a Bracken and I haven’t seen it for sale, but I was happy to see it growing in a wooded area in front of the house. 

Resurrection Ferns look 
                dead most of the  time, but spring back to life whent here is water - photo by Stibolt

These ferns look dead most of the time, but just add water and they spring back to life like a sea monkey!

The Resurrection Fern (Polypodium polypodioides) was new to me. I never saw it in Maryland. And unlike the other ferns in my list, this one is an epiphyte, which means it doesn’t require soil. In fact, these little ferns, growing only to four to six inches, seem to occur most frequently on the tops of the more horizontal branches of Live Oaks (Quercus virginiana). Most of their lives, they look dead, but as soon as there’s water they spring back to life, hence the common name.

As I said, I like all types of ferns. They just seem so calming somehow. I was happy to find a good variety of ferns around our house and will continue to encourage them.

Ginny Stibolt would like to hear from readers who have suggestions and questions. After all, there are more than a few transplanted gardeners Florida trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t in planting zone 8/9. She's wrote, "Sustainable Gardening for Florida," published by University Press of Florida that was released in 2009. Now she's written "Organic Methods for Growing Vegetables in Florida" with Melissa Contreras from Miami. The new book was released in Feb 2013. You may contact her or read extra details on her articles and other information posted on her website:

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