by Ian Brand

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

NOVEMBER is traditionally when I put our garden “to bed” for the winter, and this year is no different. The garden has been my sanctuary over the past eight months, where I often wander, thinking and contemplating, while I watch both the bees forage and the acrobatics of the House Martins which nest in our eaves.

Living close to the moors, as we do, it is not a garden for elaborate perennial borders, which is why I started a fernery two years ago. I have a passion for ferns, with their unfurling crosiers in spring, just like a Bishop’s crook, and come summer their majestic green fronds.

Their origins date back 350 million years to the Carboniferous era when what was to become Yorkshire lay across the equator. Together with Horsetails and Clubmosses, they formed tropical forests, which became with the immense passage of time, Yorkshire’s coal. Coniferous and broad-leaved trees were nowhere to be seen, having yet to evolve.

Wharfedale Naturalists’ had planned to visit the fernery this summer. It was going to be a morning of coffee, friendly banter and ferns - with 16 common native species and a few from overseas on display. Sadly it never happened, but “fingers crossed” that it will next year.

Most of the ferns have now turned a wonderful autumnal golden colour, but it is not too late to see one of my favourites, Hart’s-tongue (Asplenium scolopendrium) which remains semi-evergreen throughout winter. There is no other British fern quite like it, with its bold glossy simple fronds. It is often found growing on lime-rich rocks or the man-made equivalent, mortared walls.

Ferns do not flower, they produce spores. If you look at the underside of a Hart’s-tongue frond, you will see narrow linear brown structures called sori (see photo insert), producing thousands of minute spores. Once a spore lands it will grow into a small plantlet (or prothallus) and start the sexual part of its complex reproduction. The sperm-like male antherozoids have to swim to fertilize the egg (or oosphere), which is why ferns have to grow in damp conditions. Once fertilization is complete, a new young fern starts life, initially relying on the plantlet for its nutrients.

This elaborate process only goes to make this primitive plant, even more fascinating, which is why I will be eagerly awaiting next spring for the process to start all over again.