Sunday, December 06, 2009

Green in winter

Stepping down into the ancient, moist sinkhole, I felt like an elf--or a hobbit or a dwarf or some other little woodland creature usually portrayed as living under a bright red Russula mushroom amidst ferns, mosses and bright orange salamanders. Enormous ferns draped the hillsides, offering a dramatic difference from the brown leaves/yellow grass landscape I had spent the whole morning walking through. Even now, in the cold, harsh, short days of December, mesic and dry mesic woodlands harbor thriving populations of brilliant green ferns.

Of the most commonly encountered, Christmas fern (Polystichum achrosticoides) takes the prize for the most charismatic. Found throughout the Ozarks near creek beds, in sinkholes, in the uplands where even slightly mesic soils exist, Christmas fern stands out like a giant among the leaf litter. Big, strapping evergreen fronds lie close to the ground during winter; the base of the plant is typically ringed with desiccating fronds, but during the growing season, new growth is erect, averaging 2 ft. tall. Because the leaves are so leathery and thick, the older, brown fronds persist all winter next to the green fronds.

According to Steyermark's Flora of Missouri, "pioneers used the leaves [of Christmas ferns] for making Christmas wreaths." Imagine that! There weren't enough cedars to go around for Christmas greenery in the late 1800s. Settlers resorted to fern fronds for Christmas greenery. And now we can hack down all the cedars we want for Christmas trees (and wreaths, and garland, and for kindling for backyard fires) without anyone even noticing! [Thanks, overgrazing livestock and 80+ years of fire suppression. And, thanks trashed out roadside for my stunning Christmas tree.]

Check out moist woodland rocky slopes, sandstone outcroppings and other acidic soils in the Eastern Ozarks to search for marginal shield fern (Dryopteris marginalis). In Missouri, this is the most common species of the genus Dryopteris, and can be found throughout the Ozarks and Ozark Border Divisions. I've seen it on igneous and sandstone, and not once on dolomite.

I stumbled across another Dryopteris in the Ozarks recently, D. goldiana, Goldie's fern. Known from a mere seven counties in Missouri, Goldie's fern is uncommon in the Ozarks. Missouri represents the southwestern edge of the range of this species, though Goldie's fern may have been more common here before the last glacial retreat. One of the few glacial relicts we still have in the Ozarks, Goldie's fern populations aren't very well known and should remain protected. As I told one fan of any and all rare and endangered species (I think he kept a checklist), do you have to see it to know it's there? Or is it good enough to just know it's there and being protected? He wanted to SEE it. Never mind conservation of the site, he wanted to stamp his footprints all around the plant. Probably wanted to steal a specimen. I didn't tell him where it was. D. marginalis is lovely, too, and you can find it in full, fresh green foliage right now in the Ozarks.

1 comment:

moosh said...

A wreath out of ferns would be lovely. Thanks for sharing.