Biota of the Blue Ridge: Christmas Fern

Coiled like party-favor noise-makers for a spring celebration

Circinate vernation.

…a  term retrieved from a box marked “botanical” found on a top shelf of a back room where the door has not been opened for tens of years. Why the brain keeps such trinkets of Latin jargon I do not know, but I am somehow richer for it, I presume, finding it has been stored there, to ferment and ripen like ancient wine in the vault of the brain in the dark neglect for other things more practical. But there it is when I needed it: the term to describe the unique unfolding of the crozier of the frond of the Pteridophytes.

The generative tip where cell division gives rise to swelling cells that will become the lacery of a fern leaf begins protected, coiled within the more mature parts last hour or yesterday put in place in miniature, protected also, as often as not, by thin scales or silvery hairs that keep the vulnerable parts sheltered from the cold, from the drying winds and as little direct sun as their growing place under a closing canopy will allow, and perhaps also from those with or without backbones who might find fiddleheads on their spring menu.

How do you unfold in spring? Through your life? Like the cabbage whose leaves in bud swaddle each other in successively larger, thicker layers, the heart always hidden deep inside? Or like the White Pine, five advancing lines of growth, side by side out of the starting gate, bursting from the sheath at the tips of terminal buds, lateral buds, racing to keep pace with the root tips pushing their way out into new food for thought?

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. “Christmas Fern” due to the stocking shape of the leaflets.
    Or so I recall my father telling it a long time ago…