Column: Ferning with friends

Micki Colbeck. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Micki Colbeck. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Geoff Hansen


For the Valley News

Published: 09-06-2023 10:40 AM

“Let’s wade out here. I feel sure we’ll find some Isoetes away from shore.” our instructor, botanist Robbin Moran said joyfully as we followed him into the lake, pants rolled up, magnifiers in hands, heads down. We were searching for an elusive, thread-like lycopod called quillwort, a plant that first evolved during the Paleozoic, and hasn’t changed much over the last 500 million years, lone survivor of the tree-lycopods of today’s coal beds.

“I think I found one,” I said, as I dug my finger into the gravelly, mucky bottom, digging the bulbous sporophytes near the base. The corms and chive-like leaves reminded me of a just formed clove of garlic.

“Oh, yes, that’s a nice specimen.” Robbin said. “Let’s bring it back to the lab to dissect the spores. We’ll soak them in water and should get to see swimming sperm!”

And indeed, we did.

Robbin, Alejandra, and Carl, all fern and lycophyte biologists who are based at three different research institutions, along with UVM grad students, Bertrand, and Sarah, would lead us for six days through rivers and lakes, mossy forests, rocky talus slopes, and boggy cedar swamps of downeast Maine, into the world of ferns and lycophytes, ancient plants and their many odd-looking hybrids.

The old term, fern allies, we would learn, is no longer a thing. You are either a fern or not a fern, thanks to DNA sequencing. Ferns, as it turns out, are closer to flowering plants than to the more ancient Lycopodium. Equisetums are so close to ferns that they are ferns. Algae, liverworts, hornworts, and mosses are far earlier — the most ancient forms of plants — the grandmothers of all green things.

Eagle Hill Institute, which is way up east on the coast, almost to Canada, hosts a series of natural history weeklong seminars throughout the summer — ornithology, geology, dragonflies, mosses, seaweed, lichens, sphagnum, sedges and grasses, ferns, and lycophytes. Staying in rustic cabins and eating three tasty meals together, we helped each other through morning lectures, afternoon field trips and evening microscopy, exploring ferns, lycopods (fir and club mosses), equisetums (horsetails and scouring rushes), selaginellas (spike mosses), and isoetes (quillworts) while swatting mosquitoes, taking notes, and trying to draw in the drizzle. My roommate, Elissa, a Ph.D. student at Columbia created notebooks of exquisite drawings and calligraphy and taped fern fronds that Leonardo would have enjoyed.

We shared the week with a bird banding group who had to be up and out by 5:30, so we didn’t often eat together, and when they were at the table, they seemed tired — tired and happy.

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Bryologist, Nancy Slack once told me that bryologists tend to be nice folks because there is no money in it — no big grants to compete for. I wondered if fern people are always this nice, and thought about learning to speak Spanish, talking my way into Alejandra’s fern research in Colombia or Costa Rica. Maybe fern folks are into it for the sheer beauty and awe of an ancient fiddlehead uncurling in the misty jungle as it has for a quarter of a billion years.

Just when you think you’ve got the fern species down, you learn that they hybridize all over the place and you may be seeing a mix of two different species, probably sterile, like a mule, unless that is, the hybrid has figured out how to double its chromosomes. But that is for another time.