This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Sterile and fertile fronds, pinnatifid, unlike; sterile ones twelve to eighteen inches high, with lanceolate serrulate divisions united by a broad wing, having veins forming many rows of meshes; fertile fronds smaller, with narrowly linear almost disconnected divisions; the areoles and fruit dots (which are four to five lines long) in a single row each side of the secondary mid-ribs. (Gray's Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States. See also Eaton's Ferns of North America; and Wood's Class-Book of Botany, under the name of Woodwardia onocleoides.)
THE species now illustrated is in many respects one of the most beautiful and interesting of our native ferns. As compared with many other American species, it is regarded as somewhat rare. It is, indeed, confined to a limited portion of our extensive country, but is generally seen in great abundance where it is found at all. In southeastern New Jersey, as we approach the sea-coast, it is seen in great abundance, and aids much in giving the peculiarly pleasing character which renders a visit to that section of the country during the summer months one to be long remembered. The country is low, but a few feet above the sea-level, swampy, and the ligneous vegetation composed chiefly of Magnolia glauca, Red Maple, and an occasional specimen of the White Cedar. The smaller shrubs are chiefly of the Alder, Prinos verticillatns, Andromeda, Gaylussacia, Vac-ciniwn, with a few scattered Hollies, and some other things. Among and often over this the Mercury vine - Smilax rotundi-folia - thrusts its long thorny branches, which are assisted by Ampclopsis and several species of grape in making an impenetrable thicket often hundreds of acres in extent. Still among the lowest masses of herbage numbers of smaller things manage to make a fair living. The Sarracenia purpurea, or Huntsman's Cup, various strong grasses and sedges, and numerous ferns are almost sure to be among those present, struggling with the Sphagnum and other mosses, and quite successfully, for a good share of life. Among this warlike race our netted Chain-fern is found in considerable numbers. It is not, however, that it prefers this sort of a struggle for life, for when it finds itself in places more free from arborescent growths, and has the full benefit of the open air and free sun-light, it is wonderful how much more rich and vigorous its growth becomes.
Besides the beauty which, as a part of the general scenery, it may justly lay claim to, it has individual traits which attract close observation. The barren fronds (Fig. 1) are the first to appear in spring. About mid-summer the fertile fronds (Fig. 2) follow. By autumn the rhizome (Fig. 3) has progressed and formed a terminal coil (Fig. 4), which remains enclosing the buds which are to push forth and form the barren fronds the succeeding spring. The barren frond is remarkable for its resemblance to the Sensitive fern - Onoclea sensibilis. From shaded locations, the tint, as seen in our specimen, is rather darker than in others; but when in more open places the peculiar ashen-gray tint is identical with the Sensitive fern. The veining is also the same, but the tendency to division is rather greater in our present species. In the description as taken from Dr. Gray, it is noted that the divisions are united by a broad wing; but this is not completely so in all, for, as may be noted in our illustration, the wing has nearly disappeared at the base of the frond, and, while the upper portion is but pinnately divided, the lower is truly pinnate. The fertile frond is as we see primordially the same as the barren one, even to the irregular divisions of the upper portion, only much more contracted. The masses of fruit arranged like bricks in a wall, and seen enlarged in Fig. 5, add very much to its singular beauty; all of which is heightened by the rich brown color of the stipe, and which is wholly wanting in the barren one. To the unassisted eye the sori, or fruit masses, look like mere right-angled blocks, but as seen in the magnified sketch they are the outgrowth of veins which, taken in pairs, make oblique hexagons in successive order. Between each pair is a small scale appearing so regularly as to suggest the possibility of these appendages, usually regarded as mere accidents, being abortive intentions of important parts.
The resemblance in the barren frond to Onoclea is so close that the philosopher fond of speculation will be tempted to inquire whether the two species may not have had a community of origin. The anatomical structure of the female frond is indeed widely different in the two genera; but we now know that anatomical structure follows and does not govern form. We also know that time in growth-waves has a great influence on form. In Onoclea the female frond is not thrown up till late in the season, while in Woodwardia it commences growth in midsummer. The Onoclea is understood to be of very remote geological age - the Woodwardia, from its local range, we may believe to be modern. If, to all these considerations, we may imagine an Onoclea that had achieved the power of advancing the female frond, it might result in the change we see. At any rate, we do know such an acceleration would result in a changed form; but we do not know the direction the change would take. Such imaginary plans, suggested by a few observations, must not be taken for facts; but it is only under the inspiration of such possibilities that scientific knowledge is ever advanced.
As already noted, the geographical range of this species is comparatively limited. It is generally believed to be confined to the marshes of the seaboard Atlantic States from Massachusetts to Florida, in which latter State Miss Mary C. Reynolds finds it fruiting profusely. In Dr. Newberry's catalogue of the Plants of Ohio, however, it finds a place, if correctly so placed, probably along the lake region.
Its botanical history dates back to the time of Clayton, the early Virginia botanist, who sent it to Gronovius, by whom it was classed with Acrostichum. By Linnaeus it was described as Acrostichum areolatum, the latter name being derived from the little areas or pits formed by the uniting veins of the leaves. In 1793 Sir James E. Smith distinguished it from Acrostichum and named it Woodwardia. He says he had a specimen of our present species given him by Sir George Staunton, who received it first from Pennsylvania. He appears to have seen only the fertile frond, and not to have recognized that it was the same as Linnaeus' plant, or he might have called it Woodwardia areolata, instead of angustifolia, the name it now bears. Comity and the saving of synonyms - points good botanists keep in mind - would have dictated this. Strict law, however, gives the describer of a new genus the absolute right over the name of the species, and this is why the present name is right, though some authors call the plant Woodwardia areolata. Willdenow, following Smith, did not seem to like the name because angustifolia referred to the fertile frond. He preferred to take a descriptive name from the barren frond - and hence we have in his work Woodwardia onocleoides. Good botanists, as we have said, recognize the necessity of adhering to strict canon law. Therefore, so long as the plant is deemed a Woodwardia, its correct name will be Woodwardia angustifolia.
The Sir George Staunton, who is connected with the history of our fern, practised as a physician in the West Indies from 1762 to 1769, where he was captured in an attack on these islands by the French. He afterwards became celebrated as the English Ambassador to the Court of China about 1792, and died in London in i3oi. Many of the leading men of these days were eminent in botanical studies. It would be interesting to know what correspondent Sir George Staunton had in Pennsylvania about that time.
1. Barren frond taken in May.
2. Fertile frond taken in July.
4. Frondose apex of Rhizome.
5. Enlarged sketch of portion of pinnule, showing the areolate veins and fruit dots.