Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Early Ozarks settlers gathered ferns for Chistmas decorations

By Dr. Lynda Richards

Christmas fern is a wild native Ozarks plant, growing best on north-facing slopes and other shady sheltered sites. Anyone who spends time in the woods has probably seen Christmas fern. It looks like a modest relative of the fluffy Boston fern on a stand in Grandma’s parlor, in an east window with lace curtains. But Christmas fern is no escapee from the parlor or immigrant from another continent, it’s right at home in woodlands throughout eastern USA.
Each leaf or frond is a foot or more long, with a stem and several dozen pairs of 2-inch-long leaflets. The fronds start out upright, then arch outwards, and end the season lying more or less on the ground, but still bright green. Certain fronds (so-called “fertile” fronds) bear millions of rusty-colored spores on the undersides of the terminal leaflets.
Christmas fern was named by early European settlers who gathered the green fronds for Christmas decorations. In the dead of winter, there wasn’t much else green. It seems strange to us now, since lots of us grew up with cedar trees for Christmas trees. But as a real old-timer will tell you, cedar trees were not always as common as they are today. In fact, before the 1930’s cedars were rare in the Ozarks, mostly confined to rocky bluffs where fires could not reach them. So for Christmas greens, settlers made do with what they could find, and making fern garlands and wreaths for the mantle and doorways.
Ferns, like mosses, liverworts, and lichens, are non-flowering plants. Instead of flowers and seeds, ferns reproduce by tiny spores which are transported by wind and/or water. In ages long past, ferns and their relatives were the dominant plants on earth. When they died off, their carbon-containing stems and leaves, buried under water and mud, became the coal that helps power our industrial age.
The scientific name of Christmas fern is one of those that give scientific names a bad name. Polystichum acrostichoides doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Fortunately scientific names can be “sounded out” as we were instructed to do as children, and every syllable is sounded.
In springtime, new fern fronds emerge as “fiddleheads” from the perennial root at the base of the old leaves. Whitetail deer like to eat these fiddleheads. And they can be collected and steamed like asparagus. The Christmas fern was also used medicinally. Most of the references are for treating rheumatism.
Any time of year, Christmas fern is nice to see—the spring fiddleheads, the summer and fall leafy fronds in the dappled shade, and especially the welcome and promising spots of green on the drab winter forest floor.

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