As ground temperatures warm up the ferns in my garden have begun to emerge assuring me that warmer days are on their way. Members of an ancient plant family, ferns harken back to a time when our planet was warmer and wetter.
One path botanists follow as they trace a plant’s evolution is the way they reproduce. Algae inhabiting our prehistoric oceans produced spores which moved through the water to complete their fertilization cycle. As plants evolved to live on dry land they continued using spores for reproduction, but some developed the ability to transfer their genetic material on land away from water.
Over the eons some plants evolved away from spores and developed seeds to achieve their reproductive goals. The countless strategies flowering plants employ to combine their genetic material and produce seeds reflects the array of ecological niches they inhabit.
Ferns evolved keeping their spore-based approach to reproduction. Competing for light in an increasingly crowded ancient world ferns began to rise above the ground, developing vascular tissue to carry nutrients from the roots and sugars produced by the leaves during photosynthesis throughout the plant.
Fast forward a few million years to 2018 and ferns happily reside in my garden. With more than 9,100 species modern ferns thrive in a variety of conditions —ranging from the tropics to the arctic. Being woodland plants ferns prefer shady spots but they occupy wet to dry locations and small to large spaces.
Ferns have a language all their own. Coiled new leaves emerging at the beginning of the season are called fiddleheads. They unfurl to become the familiar fronds and the leafy part is referred to as a blade. Fertile fronds have small round capsules, called sorus, arranged on the underside of the blade. These sori contain dust-like spores which disperse later in the season as part of the plant’s reproductive cycle.
Tidy gardeners may prefer to remove the old fronds but these dried blades provide shelter for small garden residents and will eventually break down adding organic material to your soil.
Dozens of ferns are native to our region. While generally tolerant of a variety of conditions some ferns have very specific needs. So be sure to select species which will thrive in your location. The University of Georgia Extension website (extension.uga.edu/publications – search “ferns”) provides reliable, research-based information about ferns that can guide you in your selection.
While they may not be as showy as some of my garden plants the emerging fiddleheads herald the coming chorus of the growing season. Mother Nature is clearing her throat and I’m anxious to hear her sing.
Lise Jenkins and Kit Flynn are contributing columnists. Absent from their gardens, they enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of innovation and horticulture. More on Twitter @AbsenteGardener or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.