“Ferns are one of the most ancient plants on the planet,” said Dan Spaulding, curator of collections at the Anniston Museum of Natural History. Now flowering plants dominate the Earth, “but ferns are still with us,” Spaulding said. “They found a niche. They’re not extinct.”
Botanists have long loved Alabama for the wide variety of ferns that grow here — some of them quite rare. Spaulding has co-authored a new guidebook, “Ferns of Alabama.” He’ll be signing copies at the museum Friday.
The book, which was co-authored by John W. Short, is part of the Gosse Nature Guides series from University of Alabama Press. The book includes detailed descriptions — including photos, illustrations and distribution maps — for more than 120 species of Alabama ferns and related plants.
Spaulding, who knows how to make education fun, thanks to his work with the museum, made a point to include fun facts about ferns, including folklore and the stories behind their names.
For example, the Cinnamon Fern — which Native Americans ate as a vegetable — is so named because of the cinnamon brown-colored hairs on its leaves. The leaves of the Hairy Lip Fern are, not surprisingly, hairy on the underside.
The book also describes what Spaulding calls “the secret sex life of ferns.” If you remember from biology class, ferns do not produce seeds, they produce spores. “A spore is a single cell and is usually microscopic,” according to the book.
A spore does not grow a new fern. It grows a different generation of plant called a gametophyte, which is tiny, green, heart-shaped and rarely seen. The short-lived gametophyte produces sperm and egg cells, which unite to grow a new fern.
Another surprising thing about ferns, Spaulding said, is that they don’t all look like feathery ferns. The Whisk Plant looks like a spare piece of a broomstick. It’s a very primitive plant without roots, Spaulding said, and there has been a rare sighting of one in Calhoun County.