The Christmas tree is packed away, lights have all gone dark, and the smell of holiday baking is a distant memory. How do we cope with the winter blahs now that the Christmas season is over?
Mother Nature has a perfect cure for this.
All around us are little gifts tucked away amongst the rocks, leaves and grasses outside. You’ll find many native plants, green and enchanting with just a whisper of spring to come and offering relief from the winter blues.
One of my favorite plants is the Ebony Spleenwort, or Asplenium platyneuron, a petite native fern. This small fern is one of our evergreen ferns here in Georgia. With close inspection, you can easily identify the spleenwort. This fern has slender fronds which are broad at the middle, but taper at each end. Most telling are the dark brown stems, which on a fern are called rachis. Fronds can be 4 to 20 inches long, broad at the middle and tapering at each end. Individual leaflets are only .5 to 1.5 inches long and consist of 10-40 pairs arranged alternately along the rachis.
While it is sometimes mistaken for the Christmas fern, they are quite easy to distinguish from one another. The rachis (stem) of the Christmas fern is green and scaly, while the rachis of the Ebony Spleenwort is shiny and dark reddish brown.
Ebony Spleenwort, like other ferns, reproduces by the production of spores which can be found on the underside of the leaflets. Another distinguishing feature that allows you to determine if the fern is a spleenwort or a Christmas fern is the arrangement of the sori (group of spores) on the leaves.
On the spleenwort, the cinnamon-colored, lance-shaped groups of sori are produced in summer and are arranged in alternate pairs on the underside of the leaf. The spores will be dark brown when mature. Christmas fern’s sori are produced between June and October and are arranged in a somewhat circular pattern.
While this fern looks very fragile, it is quite hardy with a range from Ontario south to Florida and west to New Mexico and Arizona. Strangely enough, it can also be found in southern Africa.
These little ferns can grow almost anywhere-upper woodlands, sandy woodlands, rocky wooded slopes, rocky cliffs and ledges (if it’s not too sunny or dry) and loves recently disturbed habitats. Locations that are moist but well-drained are ideal for the Ebony Spleenwort. It can tolerate more sun than most ferns and adapts well to rock gardens that are in a semi-shade or dappled sun setting as well as along a wooded path.
While planning your next garden spot, consider putting in some Ebony Spleenwort, along with companions plants that will compliment each other. Good choices for companion plants are wild columbine, False Solomon’s Seal, early meadow rue and violets. When planted alongside trilliums, the fern will disguise the fading leaves and stalks of the trillium while waiting on other companion plants to burst forth.
I am the kind of person who is easily distracted from my task — as I walk to the garden shed to get a tool, I’ll see some weeds that need to be pulled, totally forgetting to visit the shed. I say that the Ebony Spleenwort is my favorite fern until I take a hike in the woods and see a Christmas fern. Then the Christmas fern becomes my favorite. But wait, is that a lady fern I see up ahead? That’s just beautiful — my new favorite fern. With dozens of different kinds of ferns growing in our woods and along the creek banks, it’s just too hard to decide. I liken it to eating at a smorgasbord and trying to decide which of the selections of food is my favorite. I guess there’s really no reason to pick a favorite — just get a collection of them all!
If you want to learn more about ferns and other native wildflowers, please join us at the West Georgia Chapter of the Georgia Native Plant Society meeting on Feb. 20 at the Ag Center in Carrollton. Meet and greet will be at 6:30 p.m. and the meeting at 7 p.m. James Hembree, head of the grounds and landscaping at UWG will be our guest speaker. Learn more about the organization at www.wgawildflowers.org or www.gnps.org. We also have a Facebook page where you will find upcoming events.