Saturday, December 20, 2008

Dryopteris spores

Hello! I apologize for the two-month hiatus, it was unintentional. Classes and research slowly hijacked my every waking moment this semester, and as the cold and snow settled in here in Wisconsin, there was less and less to talk about in terms of living plants. However, I did get to work on a really cool project for a plant anatomy course I took this fall, which I wanted to share. Along with one of my labmates and another grad student in our department, I undertook a study of the spores of Dryopteris (my research group), to satisfy the class's project requirement. We got to learn how to use the scanning electron microscope that lives in the botany building, and got some beautiful results. Above is a scattering of spores from Dryopteris marginalis, and below is a figure from the paper we wrote:

A = D. arguta, B = D. carthusiana, C = D. celsa, D = D. cristata, E = D. expansa, F = D. filix-mas, G = D. fragrans, H = D. goldiana, I = D. intermedia, and J = D. marginalis. The scale bar is 20 micrometers... really small! It was a fun project, and the results may prove useful to me down the road in my research. I'll try to post more often over the winter break, if I can find anything living to photograph! Happy Holidays!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Botany Photo of the Day

The UBC Botanical Garden, which I had the great pleasure of visiting while in Vancouver this summer, posts a Botany Photo of the Day, every day. If you do the RSS thing (to which I'm addicted), here's an xml link. Go have a look at Elliottia pyroliflorus.

Berry Go Round #9

The latest edition of Berry Go Round, an awesome botanical blog carnival, is up at gravity's rainbow, and I'm very pleased to say that my post on Blechnum made the cut! Go check out all the cool blogging people are doing about botany!

Dryopteris fragrans (!!)

My dissertation research is on the North American species of the genus Dryopteris, the wood ferns (I may have mentioned this once or twice before), and my goal for this past summer was to collect all fourteen or so of the species found on this continent. I succeeded, except for two: D. ludoviciana, which is restricted to the far southeast (mostly Florida, coastal Alabama and Arkansas), and D. fragrans, which occurs mostly in the far northern part of the continent, up both coasts of Canada, to Greenland in the east and Alaska in the west. My travels didn't take me far enough north or south to collect these species. Then, a few weeks ago, my advisor put me in touch with an employee of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, who had collected D. fragrans in central Wisconsin (!) a decade ago. 

If you're at all familiar with the topography of Wisconsin, you know it's mostly flat. The state was almost entirely glaciated in the last ice age, and as the glaciers eventually retreated, they grated the sandstone bedrock down to a nice smooth plane. Except for in a few places... In the center of the state, for example, a gigantic lake was left behind, dammed by ice, which eventually broke. The entire lake drained in perhaps a matter of days, and the force of the water cut channels through the rock in an area now known as the Dells. Above is a picture of part of the Wisconsin River that runs through one such channel. The Dells are very unique in terms of plant life because they serve as conduits for cold air to flow from the northern part of the state down towards the south, and provide refugia for species that normally wouldn't be found in this part of the state because it's too warm/moist. Enter Dryopteris fragrans.

Upon learning that it might still be possible to find this fern in this unique location, I borrowed a kayak from a friend and off we went up the river to the cliffs pictured at the top. Lo and behold, we found it after only a few minutes of scanning those rocks! It's relatively small, and pretty dense, as ferns go. This is a plant meant to endure cold. Its most striking feature is that it's sticky; it gets its specific epithet, fragrans, from the fact that it is literally fragrant. It smells sort of piney, almost like Christmas, and the source of the scent is hundreds of glandular trichomes, tiny modified hairs all over the lower surface of the fronds that produce a sticky liquid substance (about whose chemical composition I haven't a clue). In these last two pictures you can see the shiny sheen of the lower leaf surface, and even some individual trichomes; they look like tiny clear crystal balls emerging from the edges of the pinnae. Really cool!

Friday, September 12, 2008


The Portuguese word samambaia translates as fern. Apparently there is a particular fern found in the rainforests of Brazil that is traditionally known as samambaia, and a powder derived from it is used for its therapeutic properties to treat an abundance of conditions ranging from bronchitis to Alzheimer's. You can see a complete list at this site, though I have to recommend against purchasing the powder in favor of seeking modern medical advice if you have any of those ailments. It appears from the pictures I've found at that site and others that samambaia is a species of Phlebodium (which is not the same as Polypodium, despite what the linked site claims).

Whatever its scientific identity, samambaia has prompted more than medical miracles: in 2003 cellist Yo-Yo Ma released the album Obrigado Brazil, which contains a track entitled Samambaia. The piece was inspired by, you guessed it: the Brazilian rainforest ferns he encountered while in the country. 

You can hear this lovely piece of music for free, and read an NPR Morning Edition interview with Yo-Yo about the album and its inspiration at NPR's site

Blechnum spicant

Another beautiful fern from my summer travels in Vancouver, this is Blechnum spicant. It has separate sterile and fertile fronds; the sterile ones look like regular leaves, while the fertile fronds are contracted and taken up by spore-holding linear sori (lower right photo). This is a common fern in the temperate rainforests of the Northwest. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Polystichum munitum

Another toothy or spinulose Polystichum, P. munitum, or Sword Fern, was without question the dominant fern species I encountered on this trip. I found this fern everywhere I went, from the forests north of Vancouver to plantings on the UBC campus to parks in Seattle. It seems to be the single most abundant fern in this part of the northwest, and it grows huge and lush. There's something about Polystichum munitum, too, that seems to turn whatever space you're walking through into a scene out of Jurassic Park. Look closely at the first picture and tell me you can't imagine a little Compsognathus peeking out from behind one of those huge basket-shaped P. munitums...

Polystichum andersonii

One of several Polystichums I saw on this trip, P. andersonii made rare but lovely appearances in Vancouver and Washington. This genus is characterized by its spiny-ness (botanical term: spinulose), which you can clearly see here and in the next set of pictures of a related species...

Thelypteris qualpaertensis

I decided to start the fern role-call with this species, a new one for me, mostly because it's got a cool name: T. qualpaertensis. The etymology of scientific names is a hobby of mine, but here I'm stumped. I have no idea what it means, as my Botanical Latin book is back home in Wisconsin while I'm here in DC. T. qualpaertensis looks like most Thelypterises I've come across, and I was particularly enchanted by its sori, which looked to me like little blackberries.

Vancouver and Beyond

The ferns have kept me busy the last few weeks, so it's been a while since my last post. I'll try to make up for that, starting today. I'm back in DC after spending several weeks traveling and enjoying the plants of the Northwest Coast, an area of the US and Canada where I've never been before. I attended the Botanical Society of America's annual conference at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and then spent several days traveling around Washington and Oregon with local fern aficionados.

This post serves as a (very brief) introduction to the types of habitats and plants I saw out there, and I'll follow it up with several entries about specific ferns I encountered.

The pictures above are from a fern foray that took place Saturday, July 27th, to the Lower Seymour Conservation Area and Mount Seymour, north of Vancouver. There are usually several field trips on the weekend preceding the Botany conference each year, and the fern ones are always the most fun (of course). On this trip we visited typical conifer forest at the Conservation area, and as you can see, there were tons of ferns. The ones most prominent in these photos are Athyrium filix-femina (Western Lady Fern) and Blechnum spicant. I'm bad at trees, so I don't know the species that were present, but suffice to say there were lots of them, and they were BIG.

The forest was pretty rich and dense with plant life, including mosses that were draped over many of the branches. Surprisingly, despite the lush coverage of ferns, the fern flora was fairly depauperate (meaning number of species, not abundance of plants). Earlier this summer I was able to locate 15 fern species on just two or three acres at my parents' home, while my list topped out at around 10 species for this incredible forest. It's likely that there just aren't a ton of ferns able to cope with the relatively low water availability imposed by the long winters in this area of the world.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks

I was scandalized last week to learn that for the several years now, an amalgam of two of my favorite things has existed and I knew nothing about it. In 2005 (that's three years ago!) Oliver Sacks, an author most dear to my heart, published this slim volume entitled Oaxaca Journal, a chronicle of  — wait for it — a ten-day fern foray he joined in 2000 to Oaxaca, Mexico. Organized by the American Fern Society, the foray was exactly what it purported to be: a group of pteridophyte enthusiasts searching out plants in the fern-rich environs of Oaxaca. Sacks is a self-professed life-long lover of ferns, and has been a member of the New York chapter of the Fern Society for many years. Needless to say, the moment I discovered this book existed, I ran out and bought a copy. The journal is typical of his wonderful, engaging writing style, and I highly recommend it as a short, highly enjoyable, and very affordable ($8.76 from read. 

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Online Fern Key

Back to fern-focused posts. For anyone who lives in Wisconsin, or most of the midwest or northeast for that matter, this guide to the pteridophytes of Wisconsin is a great resource. Hosted by the Cofrin Center for Biodiversity at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, the site features an interactive, dichotomous key to the ferns and "fern allies" of the state, as well as a checklist of Wisconsin ferns and a glossary of fern terminology. Really helpful if you want to learn more about how to identify the species you might come across in this part of the country.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Female! Ready to Mate!

One more non-fern post for tonight. I just discovered this series of short films called Green Porno at the sundance channel site. They are written/directed/star Isabella Rossellini as a variety of insects and arachnids, explaining their sexual practices in about 30 seconds. They are very imaginative and intriguingly done and I enjoyed watching them.

Teach the Controversy

A non fern-related post: I just learned about these awesome t-shirts for sale by Amorphia Apparel. I will probably buy more than one, even though I don't really like t-shirts. They have a Teach the Controversy line, picturing absurd scenarios along with the flogged-to-death garbage line impelling you to "Teach the Controversy," as well as a Science! line that features, among other things, a cowboy-hat wearing, labcoat-sporting scientist astride a galloping paramecium. Yippee kayay!

Ferns on the Mall

Greetings! It's been a long time since my last post. My work at the Smithsonian has kept me really busy, but we're making progress! Unfortunately I haven't done any ferning or field-tripping since I've been here, so I have no new pictures of ferns in the wild, but I did come across some ferns in a most unexpected place: the National Mall. I happened to look up from my book one morning while on the shuttle, and there, right in front of the Smithsonian Castle, where these benches! They looked really familiar, and sure enough, they are replicas of the 1870 Fern and Blackberry garden seat I wrote about several months ago. There's actually a website that discusses the various outdoor furnishings in the Smithsonian gardens, but alas, it doesn't mention these benches explicitly, only citing them as illustrative of the "naturalistic" period of furnishings. I'll have to make up my own story about how they were chosen (involving some clear-eyed visionary who recognized the beauty, modesty, and steadfastness of ferns and felt that they were a perfect symbol to sit before a great repository of knowledge).

I'm afraid I won't have many more opportunities for fern-viewing until late July, when I go to Vancouver, B.C., Washington State, and Oregon, for the annual Botanical Society of America conference and some time in the field. The blog will likely be light until then, as I wrap up this stint in D.C. and head home to Madison. I should have a lot to write about once that next trip begins!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Dryopteris goldiana

I'm settling into our very comfortable temporary home in Alexandria, Virginia, from whence I'll be commuting to the Smithsonian starting tomorrow. We're only about a mile from the Pentagon - exciting! I wonder if they ever think about ferns in there...

Pictured above is Goldie's Fern, Dryopteris goldiana, photographed in the UW-Madison Arboretum. We saw quite a lot of it on the walk I led the other day; it loves moist, rich, shady forest understories, and so is very happy in the Arb's Gallistel Woods. Unfortunately so are the mosquitos, but that's another story.

We were wondering about the specific epithet of this fern, goldiana, and where it and the common name came from. Kathy Miner, who is in charge of Educational Programs at the Arboretum and facilitated the scheduling of the fern walk, did some digging and discovered that it was named for John Goldie, a 19th-century Scottish botanist who came to North America several times to conduct research and field trips. He made his first visit in 1817, when he was 22, and in 1819 he walked from Montreal to Philadelphia and back. It was during this second trip that he collected a specimen of what would come to be known as Goldia's Fern, D. goldiana. He also kept a diary during this journey, which was later published by his granddaughter as "Diary of a Journey Through Upper Canada and Some of the New England States, 1819." Kathy discovered that this slim volume is still available through some rare and antique book dealers, so I'm going to try and acquire a copy! Goldie was a protege of the great botanist Sir William J. Hooker (father of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, Darwin's botanical ally and perhaps the first person to hear his ideas on natural selection). He was also very interested in the Niagara region, as were many other influential botanists and geologists of the time, including Charles Lyell.

The Missouri Botanical Garden has an interesting reprint online about John Goldie's North American travels, geology, and the state of evolutionary theory during this part of the 1800s, and there is a short biography of him available from the Peel Teaching Garden's website.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

UW-Madison Arboretum

This morning I led a fern walk for guides at the UW-Madison Arboretum, a fantastic place located in the heart of Madison and close to the campus. It is a collection of managed forest, wetland, and grassland community types, and one of my favorite places in the city. We had a fun time walking and looking for ferns, despite the hordes of mosquitos that descend as soon as you set foot in the woods. We found, among other things, a thriving patch of the fern pictured above, Onoclea sensibilis (Sensitive Fern), although its fertile fronds (right photo) weren't out yet in the Arb. Other ferns encountered included Dryopteris goldiana and D. intermedia (Goldie's and Intermediate Ferns), Osmunda regalis (Royal Fern), and lots of Athyrium filix-femina (Lady Fern) and Matteuccia struthiopteris (Ostrich Fern). Things are very lush at this time of year, and most of the ferns we saw were very happy! I hope to do more walks like this in the future.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Dryopteris marginalis

As I mentioned last week, Dryopteris marginalis is probably my favorite species in this genus. Its frond coloration is striking, and its appearance overall is so unique that it's hard to misidentify or overlook this fern. Its specific epithet was inspired by the sori, which are located along the margins of the pinnules, thus it also satisfies my penchant for highly descriptive and sensible Latin plant names.

I leave Thursday for Washington, DC, where I will be doing a fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution for several weeks over the course of the summer. It should be a fantastic experience, and I'm looking forward to working with some great people in the fern community while I'm there. I will post as often as I can about working with and collecting ferns in the DC area, and hopefully I'll have some good stories to tell along the way. Wish me luck!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Dryopteris sori IV: D. carthusiana

The last post in this mini-series (for now at least) on Dryopteris sori: D. carthusiana, the Spinulose or Toothed Wood Fern. It is a close relative of D. intermedia, which is one of its parents. D. carthusiana's other parent, however, is unknown, but is posited to be a mythical beast known as "Dryopteris semicristata", always written in quotations because it has never been seen and is therefore only hypothetical. This fabled fern, which many pteridologists have hunted but none have found, is also a parent of D. cristata, the Crested Wood Fern. I think The Quest for Semicristata would be a good subtitle for the next Indiana Jones installation, or perhaps just a chapter heading in my thesis one day.

Dryopteris sori III: D. clintoniana

More Dryopteris sori, this time from Clinton's Wood Fern, Dryopteris clintoniana. These plants were growing up to three feet tall around the edges of a swamp in McLean, New York, near Ithaca. 

Dryopteris sori II: D. marginalis

One more Dryopteris post tonight. This is Dryopteris marginalis, the Marginal Wood Fern, so named for the sori that are found along the margins of the pinnules, as you can see in the top two photos. D. marginalis is perhaps my favorite species in the group; its sori are beautiful and make it easy to identify, and the fronds range in hue from a bright green to an almost iridescent bluish color. The lower photos show two lovely crown-shaped specimens in dry, rocky woods atop Glass Mountain in South Carolina. 

Dryopteris sori I: D. intermedia

I've been remiss in blogging during the past few weeks due to lots of time spent in the car, crossing large swaths of the country. But it was worth it for the ferns! I saw a lot of beautiful things down in Virginia and the Carolinas, and I think it's time I do a post (or several) on the group I actually study: Dryopteris, or the Wood Ferns. There are approximately 250 species of Dryopteris worldwide, with 14 or so here in North America. They are exceptionally beautiful ferns, and I decided to start with some of their loveliest features: their sori. The fern pictured above is Dryopteris intermedia, grown in the gardens at Crow Dog Native Ferns from wild-collected spores. The indusia are the whitish clamshells, and the shiny black sporangia peeking out from beneath them indicate that the spores are ripe and ready to dehisce. This would be the perfect time to collect spores from this plant to sow and grow.