The Nature of PEI
by Gary Schneider
Our province is blessed with an abundant population of beautiful native ferns. They vary in size and shape, in how they spread, and in the habitats they are found in. The tiny grape fern is quite rare in the province, but even when you know where to find them, they are well hidden amongst the taller woodland plants.
Others, such as the cinnamon fern, interrupted fern, and the edible ostrich fern, are large and showy, standing out from the wildflowers and other ground flora.
Ferns are so strange they have a language all their own. They don’t have leaves, they have fronds. They don’t have leaflets, they have pinnae. They don’t grow from seeds, they reproduce by spores. And the spores don’t just germinate into young ferns, they have to go through their own fertilization process before that happens. It is a complicated world.
I have several favourites in this family, including two rarities that are only found on a handful of properties, the Braun’s holly fern and the male fern. But of the dozens of native fern species, it is the Christmas fern that I enjoy seeing the most. The name comes from the fact that these ferns stay green well past Christmas. In some places the fronds are used for decorations in fresh or dried flower arrangements.
I can’t even put my finger on exactly why I find this plant so attractive. Perhaps it is the lovely colour and texture, shiny green and quite leathery. Or the unique and whimsical large “thumb” on each pinnae. I always think of a mitten, with the thumb sticking up and no other native fern has this characteristic.
Christmas ferns are slow-growing and thrive in damp areas, getting to about two feet tall at maturity and with reproductive spores on the back of the frond. They seem to pop up in the strangest places, and in quite different habitats. In one Millvale woodland, the plants on the forest floor were what I expected to see in upland hardwoods—mainly bunchberry, starflower and blue-bead lily. As I continued through the stand, I came upon one patch of about a quarter of an acre almost entirely covered with Christmas ferns. It was a damp area, but on quite high ground.
Another wet woodland in Bear River has many Christmas ferns growing amongst the cinnamon and interrupted ferns. And in Naufrage, Christmas ferns cascade down a small seep in a relatively young woodland along the river, interspersed with a thick cover of mosses. Clearly, these ferns grow well in moist areas, but we’ve also used them in many restoration plantings and they are fine as long as they are not drying out in direct sunlight.
I’m still so curious about things, always wanting to know why here and not there? Why one and not twenty? Why dense groupings and not mixed with other ferns? That questioning voice in my head can be annoying at times, but it keeps my forest forays interesting. My hope is that I begin to see things more clearly and gain some insight into how best to help restore the health of native forests, from the trees down to the ferns and wildflowers.
If we are serious about restoring biodiversity in this province and elsewhere, we need to know where individual plant species will thrive and be able to reproduce. That doesn’t mean that we wait until we have all the answers, but that we learn from our actions with the aim of continuous improvement.