University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Perennial Publications : Book of the Month

A Natural History of Ferns
Robbin Moran.  2004.  Timber Press.  hardcover, 301 pp.

A fascinating book written by the curator of ferns of the New York botanical garden.  In a style alternating between scientific and easily readable, it gives a whole new and fascinating appreciation to this group of non-flowering plants.  Main sections include the life cycle of ferns, classification, fern fossils, adaptations, fern geography, and ferns and people.  The 33 chapters have such intriguing titles as "Robinson Crusoe's Ferns", "Bracken, the Poisoner", "Sporadic Results", and "At the Movies".

In describing ferns and talking about this unique group of plants, one must of course use "fern jargon" or terms, which the author does but defines in the text and at the end.  Some parts get heavy going, but just when you start to give up, the tone changes to a fascinating real life story or anecdote.  Each chapter captures one's interest with the same, if not by the title.  For instance, in "Sporadic Results", the author shows how he estimated only one leaf of the spinulose wood fern, 25 inches long, could produce over 7 million spores!  It is easy to see in another fascinating chapter on the extinction of dinosaurs and plants, and why this likely happened, how the first vegetation to return in overwhelming numbers were the ferns.  This huge rise, then subsequent decrease in numbers as other plants once again evolved, is called the "Fern Spike"-- the title of another chapter.

Another example of a fascinating chapter is "The Molesting Salvinia", describing how a small fern threatened the way of life of over 80,000 people.  "Bracken, the Poisoner" describes how this one aggressive fern has been eaten by people, and how it can poison cattle and insects.

"Genres of Genera" give examples of how fern scientific names arise, such as the people and terms behind the names. You think scientific names are hard to pronounce and understand?  Then think about the name of bird's nest fern before the two-word binomial system of Linnaeus.  Instead of Asplenium nidus you would have had to use the descriptive Latin name (ready?), Asplenium frondibus simplicibus lanceolatus integerrimis glabris.  This of course means Asplenium with simple, lance-shaped, entire, nonhairy leaves!

If you are a serious fern grower or plant person, just interested in the natural history of plants, or a college student in botany or fern course, this reference should be fun reading and you should learn much about more even than just ferns.



 
 
 
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