Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/October 1889/The Home of the Ferns



IN the New World, as well as in the Old, there is many a charming spot, far away in the wild woodland or within the sunless recesses of deep-furrowed mountain gorges, which might well merit the designation by which this paper is prefixed. Indeed, for a very long period the ferns of North and South America have received considerable attention at the hands of botanists; nor must it be forgotten that, centuries before the white man set his foot upon the great continent of the West, several species of these beautiful plants were much sought after by the aborigines. The common polypody (Polypodium vulgare), which is one of the most frequently met with ferns in the Eastern States, was highly valued by the various Indian tribes for its medicinal properties, while Kalm also relates that the red man seems to have universally used the beautiful maiden-hair (Adiantum capillus Veneris) as an infallible cure for cough and difficulty of breathing. Fascinating, however, in the eyes of botanists, as are the various homes of these beautiful plants in the Northern and Southern States, there is beyond the Atlantic one spot above all others upon which Nature has lavished her most glorious gifts, which, par excellence, may well be termed "the home of the ferns."

Justly celebrated for the wondrous beauty of its diversified scenery of waterfalls and lakes and towering mountains, crimson in their autumnal glory with the ripe berries of the arbutus, this favored locality is also especially remarkable for the luxuriant growth of the rarest and most highly prized by collectors of European ferns.

Accompanied by a few scientific friends, among whom were a practical geologist and a skillful field botanist, I recently paid a visit to this fascinating region. It was toward the close of September, the best period of the year to see Killarney in all its many-hued glory. The morning after our arrival at the Lake Hotel looked, indeed, most unpropitious for our proposed pedestrian excursion around the upper and lower lakes. A dense mist enveloped everything in its vapory folds, preventing objects, even within a few feet of us, from being distinctly visible. Our aneroids were, however, rising rapidly, and we were assured by the weather-wise folk that before midday the fog would be "lifted" by a light breeze, which would be sure to spring up. After having breakfasted, we set out on our not particularly inviting tramp, selecting the route in the direction of the lower lake. Along that exquisitely beautiful and well-known path which, canopied by trees of various foliage, winds close by the marge of this charming sheet of water, we took our course, preceded by the inevitably loquacious guide. As we pursued our beclouded way, the rush of the foaming cataracts dashing madly from the hills, which rose to the height of some three thousand feet above us, came upon our ears from time to time, and splashed us with their spray, but yet were completely invisible. Even the water which rippled on the pebbly beach at our feet was as much hidden from our view by that all-enveloping mist as though Egyptian darkness surrounded us. As may be imagined, our walk was not a very enjoyable one, but we were soon destined to be amply recompensed for our pains. Two hours had elapsed from the time of our setting out, and noon found us sitting on the parapet of that romantic bridge which spans the outlet between the upper and lower lake. While we were deliberating whether to return or continue our walk, it suddenly became evident that the surface of both lakes was agitated by a strong gust of wind, which, as we afterward learned, came down through the celebrated Gap of Dunloe. The previously motionless mist began immediately to wreath itself in upright columns, to which the breeze gave a kind of rotatory motion as they were suddenly lifted up from the surface of the water. Then followed, with startling rapidity, one of the most wondrous natural transformation scenes it is possible to conceive. In less than six minutes, not merely were the two lakes spread out before us, from shore to shore, in all their beauty, but the thick masses of vapor had rolled up the sides of those gigantic hills which overhung them, and the brilliant sun was shining merrily out of the bluest of skies. I had previously witnessed similar cloud-phenomenon amid the peaks of the higher Himalayas, but nothing which for startling effect and scenic beauty could bear comparison with this.

It was the first acquaintance which every one present, myself excepted, had made with Killarney, and it was scarcely to be wondered at that from every lip burst an ejaculation of glad surprise. In the splendid surroundings which, as if by the wave, of a magician's wand, had been so suddenly unfolded to our view, the mere worshiper of the beautiful in nature had sufficient to demand his warmest devotion; but to the scientist the spot was more especially holy ground. My friend the geologist beheld in those great Kerry hills—the Magillicuddy Reeks, the Toomies Mountain, and magnificent Mangerton—one of the oldest formations in Europe; while the botanist speculated upon the treasures which lay scattered above and around him in the shape of ferns and club-mosses and purple broom.

The following day we specially dedicated to the collecting of those rare and delicate ferns which abound in mossy nooks and in spots kept constantly moist by the spray of some foaming cascade as it leaped from ledge to ledge in its impetuous course. One of the ferns, specimens of which we were most desirous to obtain, was the Trichomanes, or bristle fern. This exceedingly beautiful plant, though plentiful in Madeira, is absolutely unknown in any European country except Ireland, and even there is only now to be found in certain districts of the extreme west. It may be described as having fronds three or four times pinnatifid, segments alternate, linear, entire or two-cleft, obtuse; involucres solitary in the axils of the upper segments. The bristle fern delights in shade and moisture, and our first find was in a rocky cleft in the immediate neighborhood of the Tork waterfall. Subsequently, within the dim recesses of a cave, the mouth of which opened upon the upper lake and could only be approached by a boat, we discovered several splendid specimens, one of which, with a creeping rhizome, some three feet long, contained no fewer than thirty perfect fronds. Nothing that I have ever seen in my varied experience of fern-life equaled the delicacy and pellucidness of these fronds, nurtured in the darkness and the mist. The veins were so prominent, and the green portion so like a membranous wing around the veins, that it resembled more a beautiful sea-weed than a fern. In this natural cave we also discovered some of our finest specimens of the Adiantum, or maiden-hair fern. This plant is called the true maiden-hair, to distinguish it from some other ferns which share its familiar name. The bright evergreen tint, the elegant form, and lightly waving attitudes of this fern render it very attractive, and when growing against the sides of the sea-washed rock, or any moist place in any abundance, no fern exceeds it in beauty. It has not been found in Scotland, and in but few districts in the south of England; in the ravines and mountain gorges throughout the west of Ireland, however, the collector is seldom permitted to go unrewarded for his diligent search. Two other rare species we also discovered in this "home of the ferns"—that exquisite variety of the polypody denominated Hibernicum, and the beautiful beech fern, P. phegopteris. The latter plant is also called the sun fern; it has a decided preference for mountainous districts, where it often grows at a great elevation, though it may frequently be found clinging to rocks in the recesses of dark woods, or, as in the present instance, festooning the mouths of natural caverns. Several little variations occur in the form of the common European polypody, the lobes being more or less cleft, or acute, or serrated. One of the most important is that termed Cambricum, the Welsh polypody, in which the lobes become broader and are again irregularly lobed and toothed. This is always barren. The variety Hibernicum, or Irish polypody, has a broader, twice or thrice pinnated frond, and is fertile. It is an exceedingly handsome form of the fern. The French call this fern le polypode; the Germans, der Tipfelfarren. It is the boomvaren of the Dutch, the polepodio of the Spaniard and Italian, and is known in Russia by the name of osokor.

Having thoroughly explored the treasures of the cave, and possessed ourselves of specimens of some twenty different species of ferns which had made their home within its damp and sunless interior, we once more set out for pastures new. Almost immediately beneath the Gap of Dunloe a beautiful object met our sight. In the midst of a group of immense gray bowlders, which lay in wild confusion at the opening of a romantic gorge, grew in luxurious abundance quite a large bed of the superb holly fern (Polystichum lonchitis). How fresh and beautiful those evergreen fronds looked in one of the wildest spots to be found in all Killarney may well be imagined: higher up the "Gap" we subsequently discovered other and smaller beds, but, remembering how difficult of cultivation the holly fern is, we refrained from taking more than two or three specimens. The higher we ascended the mountain the more stunted became this remarkable species, until at length it grew only to the height of some six inches, still retaining its marked characteristics. The stalk of the frond of this fern is exceedingly short, and the dark, glossy green leafy part is firm and rigid, and sufficiently prickly to remind us of the holly. The young fronds appear early in spring, among the yet verdant fronds of the previous year. They are pinnate, with short, crowded, overlapping, twisted pinnæ, which are somewhat crescent-shaped; the upper side having at the base an ear-shaped projection, while the lower side has the appearance of having had a piece cut out. The veins are twice or thrice branched, reaching nearly to the margin without uniting with others. The indusium is a membrane-like scale, and the clusters of fructification form a continuous line on each side of the midrib, and even with it. They are frequently very numerous on the upper pinnæ.

Our small party unanimously agreed that the fern which formed te most prominent feature throughout the Killarney district was the Osmunda regalis, or flowering fern. This stately species is not unfrequently called the king fern, and certainly it well deserves its regal name, which, however, appears to have been bestowed upon it through other circumstances than its crested form. Its name, Osmunda, is of Saxon origin, and perhaps was given in honor of some chief who in olden time bore the name of Osmund, that being one of the titles of Thor, the Celtic Thunderer. This attractive plant is so different in its appearance from other species that the botanist only would recognize it to be a fern, unless the veining of its leafy frond were examined. It generally rises to the height of five or six feet, and in congenial situations not unfrequently attains the height of ten feet. The young fronds of the Osmunda are usually about ten or twelve in number. Their large leaf-sprays are thin and crisp, and of a bright sea-green color, usually assuming a deeper green as the plant grows older. The stalk, which is at first reddish brown, afterward becomes green, and contrasts well with the rich rust-brown spikes of fructification. Nothing could be more beautiful, more in accordance with the surroundings, than the manner in which a considerable portion of the two lakes were literally fringed by the Osmunda, the long fronds of which arched gracefully over and dipped their masses of seed in the crystal water, while beneath the canopy thus afforded them the saucy coots flitted to and fro and gazed fearlessly upon the passing stranger.

Though some of the ferns I have mentioned may have superior claims in the eyes of botanists and collectors of rare species, it must be acknowledged that there is not one more universally popular than the graceful Athyrium filix fœmina, or lady fern. Indeed, not a few botanists have pronounced it to be the loveliest of all British ferns, possessing as well the great charm of commonness. Walter Scott, alluding to this plant in "Waverley," mentions its love for the moist, shady woodlands:

"Where the copsewood is the greenest,
Where the fountain glistens sheenest,
Where the morning dew lies longest,
There the lady fern grows strongest."

Undoubtedly, among the copsewood which covers a considerable portion of those grand hills which cast their shadows over the upper and lower lakes of Killarney, the lady fern attains a perfection not observable elsewhere, though the writer has gathered a somewhat scarce variety (A. latifolium) near Keswick, in Cumberland, and also a very peculiar species called crispum at Braemar, in Scotland. The plant is doubtless too well known to need description here, though it may be observed that its fecundity is such that a celebrated botanist has said of it that "if a single plant were uninterrupted in its possible increase for twenty-years, within that time it would cover an extent equal to the entire surface of the globe."

Our botanizing excursion, so successful, so full of interest, and so much enjoyed, having concluded, we bade adieu to matchless Killarney, and will not soon have effaced from our memories "the home of the ferns."