Thursday, December 19, 2013

Christmas Fern

All along the creek bank, the snow crunched with every step. Winter walks in the woods provide such a great chance to see wintering birds, to find antler sheds, and to note the topography and texture of the Ozark Highlands. The khaki landscape still holds on to a few splashes of green in our multitude of mosses and lichens, and an abundance of overwintering ferns. While there are a few ferns in Missouri that remain green in winter, one of the most commonly encountered is Christmas fern (Polystichum achrosticoides), and it takes my prize for the most charismatic.

Christmas fern stands out like a giant among the leaf litter in wooded settings. 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 Julian Steyermark's Flora of Missouri, "pioneers used the leaves [of Christmas ferns] for making Christmas wreaths." There may not have been enough cedars to go around for Christmas greenery in the early 1800s, so settlers resorted to fern fronds for Christmas greenery. Today, we can hack down all the cedars we want for Christmas trees (and wreaths, and garland, and for kindling for backyard fires) without even making a dent in the cedar population in the Ozarks.

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 in wooded settings, another fern that remains green through early winter. I've seen it on igneous and sandstone, and not once on dolomite.(Special thanks to RC for the lovely fern in snow photo)

It won't be long before the days creep longer and the first leaves of Hepatica poke through the matted down leaves and Harbinger of Spring pops up. Winter is so quiet in the woods these days with the early morning stillness broken by flocks of bluebirds sunning on the cedars.

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