Our Native Ferns and Their Allies 6th ed/Introduction


In the entire vegetable world there are probably no forms of growth that attract more general notice than the Ferns.   Delicate in foliage, they are sought for cultivation in conservatories and Wardian cases, and when dried and pressed add to the culture of many a domestic circle by serving as household decorations.  They furnish to botanists a broad and inviting field for investigation, and he who examines their more minute structure with the microscope will find deeper and still more mysterious relations than those revealed to the unaided eye.  Ferns thus appeal to the scientific element of man's nature as well as to the aesthetic, and while they highly gratify the taste, they furnish food for the intellect in a like degree.

The Fern allies have also played their appointed part in the domestic and decorative economy of this and other generations.   The scouring-rushes served our ancestors for keeping white their floors and wooden-ware in the days when carpets were a luxury.  The trailing stems of various species of Lycopodium have long been valued for holiday decorations; while their burning spores have flashed in triumphal processions, and have added their glow to the fervor of political campaigns.

In olden time the obscure fructification of the common brake led to many superstitious ideas among the common people, and the older poets have woven these popular notions into our literature.   Butler tells in Hudibras of bugbears so often created by mankind :

That spring like fern, that infant weed,
Equivocally without seed,
And have no possible foundation,
But merely in th’ imagination.

Shakespeare only reflects a prevalent belief of his time when he says:

We have the receipt of fern seed; we walk invisible.

Others allude to the falling of the seed on the anniversary night of the birth of John the Baptist.   The old simplers with their lively imagination were impressed by the fancied resemblances of some parts of fern growth to various organs of the human body, and introduced them into their system of specifics.  Traces of their influence still remain in the names of some of our common ferns, as spleenwort and maidenhair.

To form a correct understanding of ferns we must study the ferns themselves as well as the text-book, as it is only by direct contact with nature that we gain definite and satisfactory information.   The text-book is useful only in giving directions how to investigate.  To understand thoroughly an animal we must study its habits in its native haunts. To know its structure and position in the animal kingdom we must carefully dissect a large number of specimens, and study the development of the individual from its beginning.  In like manner, to understand fully a fern we must search where nature has planted it, watch it as it uncoils from the bud, matures, produces its fruit, and finally returns to the earth; examine it with needles and lenses, and discover its minute structure and its life-history.  These pages, which aim to give an outline of the forms of fern growth, the methods of fruiting, the germination or growth from the spore, and finally the more minute structure of the entire plant, can only be thoroughly understood by taking the ferns in hand and studying them in connection with the text.

Let no one imagine that the study of ferns will be an easy one.   Patient application and careful observation are essential to success, yet he who becomes once interested in the work will find a subject that deepens in interest with every step, and even becomes enchanting as he seeks to determine the mysterious processes of fern development and the marvels of fern structure.