Ferns are a class of plants that includes more than twelve thousand species. From the florist’s shop they move to special events and occasions such as weddings, funerals, homecoming ceremonies, parties, and numerous other locales where flower arrangements add beauty and warmth to the setting. They provide background greenery for sprays, wreaths, and flower carpets using a host of other plants that produce colorful flowers. They are not difficult to grow and can be cultivated by the novice plant grower with a little practice. Home sites often have fern beds in conjunction with flower beds and flower gardens. Some people find ferns unappealing because of their lack of brilliant, diversely colored flowers, but they provide reliable, attractive greenery.
Ferns are among the oldest groups of living land plants. Fern fossils are found in the rocks of the Upper Devonian period (about 365 million years ago) and Upper Paleozoic period (about 345 million years ago). Early records of fern distribution in Mississippi and the other sixteen or so states of the Southeast indicate that their presence can be ascribed to two hurricanes that brought spores to the area. These “invasions” occurred during two different geologic periods as far back as 15 million years, with other individual species arriving in subsequent years.
Ferns are widely distributed and vary greatly in appearance. Most are less than six feet tall. In temperate zones, ferns produce an underground stem called a rhizome; roots grow out from rhizomes below ground while the leaves, called fronds, grow out above ground. All ferns are vascular plants, meaning that they have a tubular system that brings water and minerals from the roots to the leaf tips. These features as well as roots, stems, and leaves are considered advancements over more primitive plants and allow ferns to attain greater size. Most temperate zone ferns are terrestrial, growing on rocks and soil, and they thrive in different habitats. Though ferns are often associated with low, wet, shady, rich substrate environments, there are some exceptions, such as bracken ferns, which thrive on dry, sunny hillsides with poor soils. Some of the smallest ferns grow in water—on the surfaces of streams, ponds, lakes, and rivers.
Ferns are cosmopolitan, and only a few ecosystems worldwide are uninhabited. Mississippi lies below what is called the Fall Line, the position of the seashore about 125 million years ago. Many Mississippi ferns are found near the Fall Line.
The best tallies of fern species in Mississippi (those officially reported in scientific publications) indicate roughly thirty to thirty-five different species. Many of these studies were conducted in the 1930s, and some of the ferns identified have apparently never been found again.
Some more common Mississippi ferns include the Christmas fern (Polystichum acrosticoides), a widely spread form that may be considered an evergreen; lowland lady (Athyrium asplenoides); resurrection fern (Polydium polypodioides), which grows on the bark of hardwood trees; and cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea) and royal fern (Osmunda regalis), which are larger and somewhat more majestic forms. Many gardeners are particularly partial to the Venus maidenhair (Adiantum capillus-veneris), which is abundant in North Mississippi and does quite well in cultivation in containers or moist places.
Some areas of Mississippi provide numerous habitats suitable for luxuriant growth of these remarkable spore-producing plants whose rich green fronds attract both the casual and the serious, the amateur and the professional.
- A. M. Armitage, Armitage’s Native Plants for American Gardens (2005)
- George H. Dukes Jr., A Mississippi Woodland Fern Portfolio (2000)
- Sue Olsen, Encyclopedia of Garden Ferns (2005)