#1142. Photographing Fascinating Ferns

By Lad Sessions | How-To

Sep 29

I am fascinated by all things visual, but especially by colors and patterns, the former for their infinite tonalities, the latter for their infinite forms. Hence it’s no surprise that I love sunsets—and also ferns! Photographing the former is more challenging for me: it’s hard to be in the right spot at the right time in order to try to “capture” (as if I could) the incredibly subtle spectrum and dynamic range of twilight. Ferns, however, lie patiently to hand, waiting to delight at all times, from emerging fiddleheads to ornate fans to overarching parasols. I can’t get enough of them.

This is the fourth in my series focusing on some oft-neglected natural kinds (mushrooms, lichens, mosses previously), documenting what I find underfoot in my photographic rambles.

Not incidentally, these kinds all have very ancient ancestries: their kinds were on the earth longbefore our kind, and they have much to teach us. They don’t have to be just pleasantbackgrounds. Exploring these natural kinds can get very technical and complicated, preciselybecause life on this planet is so very complicated. Scientists know this complexity full well, but my exploration will be considerably simplified, even though I have consulted scientific and popular sources, especially Peter Raven, Ray Evert and Susan Eichhorn, Biology of Plants, 7e (W.H. Freeman, 2005); Jerald Pinson, “About Ferns” (American Fern Society); Robbin C. Moran, A Natural History of Ferns (Timber Press, 2004); and of course the ever-handy internet. My images were mostly taken in the nearby western Virginia woods, but some are from further afield: Vermont on a June vacation and New Zealand in years past.

Photographers and taxonomists inhabit different worlds of thought, the one interested in the visual appearance of things, the other in the systematic classification of things. Yet they have much to teach each other. From taxonomists, photographers can learn to appreciate what lies behind and within a pleasant natural landscape: it’s not all just appearance, however pleasing.

It’s also an extraordinarily complicated and interdependent system—precisely an ecosystem—of life-forms utterly unlike our own, each with its own interesting ancestry. From photographers, taxonomists can learn how to appreciate the beautiful appearance of the forms of life: it’s not just something factual to know abstractly, but something with a particular look that one can feel and enjoy. Taken together, photographers and taxonomists help us experience a much more interesting world.

It turns out that it’s difficult to define a fern, so the features I will mention are generalities, not sufficient conditions. Ferns (unlike lichens and mosses) are vascular plants, meaning they have vascula or vessels transporting water and minerals from roots to leaves and food in the opposite direction. But they are seedless vascular plants: without seeds, they reproduce chiefly via spores. Spores are quite tiny, usually single cells, nearly naked packets of genes, with no “preformed embryonic parts” (Moran). Their survival in the wild is quite precarious, borne by the wind and water to uncertain destinations, depending for germination on the vagaries of moisture, sun and substrate wherever they land. Flowering plants have different strategies: although their air-borne pollen may trouble our respiration, normally they rely upon insects and animals to carry their pollen to a sexual target, in order to produce seeds, which are composed of hundreds or thousands of cells, containing an embryonic plant. In addition, seeds give their genes coats that offer not only protection against the elements but also, crucially, food for germination in harsher conditions, as well as lying within fruits that offer further food to foragers, who then disperse the seeds, with a bonus of fertilizer.

Seeds are an evolutionary advance over spores, and so flowering plants have taken over the world, constituting over 95% of all terrestrial vegetation today. Yet ferns persist, continuing their ancient lineage that dates back at least 383 million years and perhaps even to 430 mya. At times they were the dominant terrestrial plant, although they have been overtaken by gymnosperms (conifers) and especially angiosperms (flowering plants). Still, at least 10,500 species of fern survive worldwide today (this estimate is from the American Fern Society; other sources claim as many as 12,000 species). Ferns are particularly diverse in the tropics. Costa Rica, for example, is smaller than West Virginia but has about three times as many fern species as all of North America!

Ferns not only persist, they flourish: they are the second-most diverse group of vascular plants, though way behind angiosperms in numbers. So why do they persist, and why are they so successful? This is a complicated subject, but in brief they persist because they have found their niche, or rather special niches, mostly in warm, moist, shady nooks and forest floors, but also high on tropical trees where they have become epiphytes and there is ample moisture and just enough sun. (Some species can cope with deserts, but they are the exceptions.) In addition, tiny spores can easily ride the winds across oceanic distances, propagating where pollinated plants can’t easily reach, so that they constitute a higher proportion of species on isolated Pacific Islands than on continents.

Ferns are absorbingly interesting to pteridologists, botanists who study pteridophytes, the technical name for ferns plus lycophytes. Pteridology comes from the Greek word for fern, pteris, which is in turn derived from pteron, meaning wing or feather. Ferns are flightless feathers. Imagine that!

Pteridologists are especially interested in fern sex. Greatly simplified, there are usually two kinds of fern beings: gametophytes and sporophytes. The former produce sporophytes (and sometimes more gametophytes), the latter produce spores, which then disperse and produce more gametophytes, completing the cycle. [Complications: some few ferns are asexual, and a few more reproduce by buds, so-called “vegetative reproduction” (Moran).] The sexual role of gametophyte and sporophyte can be complex, but it does intrigue pteridologists. And why shouldn’t it interest them? Nutrition and procreation are the two essentials of life; the rest is luxury.

From a photographic point of view, ferns look best when moist. My (distinctly non-scientific!) categories here are “tired” and “happy.” When deprived of moisture, all plants look tired or worse, limp and brown, as photosynthesis shuts down. But when amply watered, and especially following a mist or rain, they just look happy; they are green machines at speed, flourishing photosynthetic factories. What living organism doesn’t look better when well-furnished with the essentials of life?

Ferns are a visual delight in each frond (leaf), in individual plants, and in clumps, whether of their kind or with other species of ferns. I particularly enjoy the contrasting harmony of different kinds of ferns in the same area; some would focus on their competition, others on their cooperation, but I enjoy their cohabitation.

Ferns also pair well with other kinds of plants, especially mosses but also the flowers, leaves and trunks of a angiosperms. The forms of various species are distinct but often harmonious (remember that I’m focusing on their visual appearance, quite apart from their existential competition with other species).

Even though most ferns love the warmth of the tropical rain forests, some hardy species can withstand the winters around here. But they are not Arctic explorers.

Their fronds come in a great variety of shapes, sizes and shades to delight the eye. Some are jagged, other smoothly rounded; some are pointed, others oval. Some are tiny and easily missed by the casual hiker, but others are tall, as tall as trees. They are trees without the usual kind of woody trunk; their “trunks” are internal hardened tissue and modified rhizomes, or what pass for roots in a fern. The colors typically range from pale green to more common darker greens—but some ferns are bronze when young, or white or golden, particularly when they senesce.

Bracken ferns are wide-spread; I found these in New Zealand, but their reach is global. They are widely eaten in East Asia and are reputed delicious (I haven’t tried any myself). But they are pests to other plants, forming dense mats that crowd out competition. And they are also toxic to animals, including humans and livestock. When the fiddleheads and rhizomes are ingested over long periods without proper preparation (soaking and boiling) they can poison their consumers; a chemical called ptalquiloside causes stomach cancers, but there are various other toxins as well. They are “the Lucrezia Borgia of the fern world.” (Moran) Photographers who delight in appearances should realize there are also hidden dangers.

Newly-emerging ferns are called fiddleheads, as anyone who has seen a violin will immediately recognize.

Such living fiddleheads are interesting on many levels. It’s always pleasing to witness young growth—babies of all kinds are just plain good-looking but also hold the promise of new life. The symbolic connotations are immense. In Maori lore, the koru symbolizes not only new life and growth, but also strength and peace, at once perpetual movement and return to origin—yin and yang with a twist. But fiddleheads are also just plain lovely to contemplate. Quite apart from colors and textures, their form is pleasing. In part this is because they resemble the fractal Mandelbrot set.

Of course fiddleheads aren’t fully fractal, because they are finite organic forms, not infinite mathematical structures. Still, they do remind us of such self-duplicative forms.

The forms of ferns respond well to rendering in monochrome as well as shades of green. It’s worth comparing saturated with unsaturated versions of the same image, and I don’t always know which one I prefer.

Some ferns don’t look like at all like ferns. Take horsetails, for example. They have an ancient lineage, from the late Devonian (roughly 380-360 mya), although the current 20-some species date from the Jurassic (roughly 200-145 mya) or later. They are small today but during the Carbonaceous era some reached 30 meters. The leaves aren’t typical fronds but non-photosynthetic “bristles” radiating from each stem segment. I found these along the nearby
Maury River, a typical semi-aquatic habitat.

There is also interesting mathematics in the neighborhood of horsetails. According to Oliver Sachs, the pattern of spacing of nodes in horsetails, wherein those toward the apex of the shoot are increasingly close together, inspired John Napier to invent logarithms. Of course the relationship isn’t mathematically exact, just as fiddleheads aren’t precisely fractals, but there is resemblance as well as inspiration.

Our daughter lives in New Zealand, and over the last two decades we have spent well over two years there, with plenty of time to hike—or rather, tramp—in various locales, particularly on the South Island. New Zealand is a photographer’s delight in many ways, but it is almost worth a trip just to photograph its ferns. As we tramped though some beautiful forest—I mean bush—we always encountered interesting ferns. Though most ferns are tropical, “New Zealand has an unusually high number of species [about 200] for a temperate country…About 40% of these species occur nowhere else in the world” (NZ Department of Conservation). Ferns are everywhere in Kiwi-land, in great profusion and variety; the country could equally well be called “Fernlandia.” I understand there’s a geological argument for an eighth continent underlying New Zealand that they term “Zealandia,” or Te Riu-a-Maui in Maori. I somehow like the idea of Zealandia underlying Fernlandia! Ferns’ familiar presence has encouraged efforts to change the New Zealand flag (which now basically represents a British colony) to one with just the frond of a silver fern or ponga, which is already the unofficial Maori flag—and, of course, on the uniform of the All Blacks. The ponga is a tree fern that can grow over 10 meters; it is named for the silver underside of its fronds. Its unfurling fiddlehead is captured in the koru symbol stylized by Air New Zealand.

Perhaps some of these scattered factoids illustrating my fascination with ferns will have kindled or reinforced your own native interest. I hope you too can soon ramble in the moist woods—or in your backyard—to contemplate and, yes, to photograph these lovely creatures.


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  • Claude Hurlbert says:

    Lad, I won’t embarrass myself by telling you how many times I have been in forests photographing ferns only to get home and think, “man, these shots are ho-hum!” The photos you present here are great. I especially like the two shots combining the green of the ferns with lavender—especially the second of the two—with the dark shadows. That’s a striking image—causing me to stop and ask if I’ve ever even seriously looked at ferns.Your last shot is even reminiscent of a peacocks tail. Yeah, you’ve got me thinking and promising myself to give a bit (we’ll, a lot) more to this art. Thank you for this post!

    • Lad Sessions says:

      Claude, I thank you for this comment. I frequent forests, and there are a multitude of living things to contemplate and photograph; but interesting details can be seen during a leisurely ramble most anywhere.

      I think you refer to a trillium, well-named for its three petals, which thrive in these woods in late April/early May. Shadows are courtesy of the forest canopy. The peacock’s tail was taken in New Zealand, most likely in a fern greenhouse, of which there are many.


  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Once again, I am struck by the extraordinary variety, Lad. I always had the impression that ferns, lichens and mosses were some of the oldest forms of life on planet Earth, and the new unit of measurement of time you’ve sprinkled through the text – “mya” – seems to confirm this. Those periods of time were WAY before anything vaguely resembling the four-legged or two-legged forms of life we know today. We don’t even rate half a “mya”!

    Fascinated by the one immediately under this sentence – “In part this is because they resemble the fractal Mandelbrot set.” What on earth is it? A macro image? If it’ a fern, its form is amazing!

    Almost a lifetime ago, I had the pleasure of staying with an American – an executive of General Motors which, in those days, made cars in Australia – in Melbourne. He’d travelled far more extensively than most people ever can – to more than 60 different countries. And he told us that New Zealand was the most beautiful of all – in his opinion, it rated even more highly than Switzerland. You and your daughter must really enjoy it!

    • Lad Sessions says:

      Well, I didn’t invent “mya.” Scientists who study deep time (geologists, paleontologists and evolutionary thinkers in general) all use this abbreviation.

      A Mandelbrot set is a mathematical structure that has a fractal form, i.e. it’s self-similar at smaller and smaller scales. Magnify a portion of a fractal and it will look like the larger version. Apparently they can be generated by fairly simple mathematical formulae, but I don’t understand the details. Fern forms resemble fractals but aren’t exactly the same at all scales. I got this image from the internet.

      Having spent considerable time in NZ, mostly on the South Island, I would concur about its beauty, comparable to if not surpassing Switzerland (in my limited experience). NZ is wilder and less human shaped, although the sheep have done a good job on many hills. And a not-inconsiderable bonus: the people are more polite and community-minded, and less aggressive, than Americans, though this may be changing.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    PS – almost forgot — that one lone flower – the purple one, with three petals and contrasting golden stamens in the centre – bears an astonishing resemblance to one that grows here, in the north-west of Western Australia. I have several of them in my garden. Wherever did you come across it?

    • Lad Sessions says:

      Pascal was apparently struck by it as well. It’s a trillium, plentiful in these woods in late April to May. Usually white, but also occasionally shades of violet. It’s a delight. What’s the name of the similar flower in Oz?

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Hmm – well I’m not a botanist – I do know one, not far from here, who specialises in plants that are native to Australia, and he’s the one I bought mine from.

        I haven’t been there during COVID, though. I imagine he would be open, but without going there I can’t be sure.

        I believe its common name is “flag iris”, or “purple flag lily” and Wiki claims it belongs to the eastern states. I bought mine as a Western Australian species – bugga the eastern states, they seem to think they can have everything!

        And Wiki describes it as Patersonia sericea.

        Some sites refer to it as Patersonia occidentalis (which would seem to support the claims that it originates in the eastern states), but also they still call it a Western Australian wildflower.

        In short – I really don’t know.

        • Lad Sessions says:

          Pete, Thanks for this. The Virginia species is Trillium grandiflorum, sometimes called wakerobin (because it comes in the early spring when the robins are about?), and begins white then gradually turns pink to lavender. It does resemble your lovely Patersonia occentalis or purple flag lily, but is a good bit shorter and smaller, I think. I don’t know the exact taxonomy but I suspect the two species aren’t closely related. The trilliums (trillia?) used to be considered in the lily family but they have since been reassigned.

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    What a lovely post filled with fern facts and very fine portraits of our fascinating fern friends! Like Claude, I’ve attempted to photograph ferns from time to time, but have never ended up with any that could stand up to yours. I never knew there were so many varieties, but now I do. Thanks for sharing, Lad!

    • Lad Sessions says:

      Thanks, Nancee. There are great variations in form (also in reproduction, habitat, etc.) among the thousands of fern species worldwide, and NZ is not the only place with spectacular varieties. I would love to travel to some topical country–Costa Rica, e.g.–for the sole purpose of photographing ferns, although I gather I would have to somehow gain access to the forest canopy, where so many ferns have migrated and become epiphytes.

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