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.
Frond linear-oblong or lanceolate in outline, one to two feet long; pinnae short, two to three inches long, triangular-oblong, or the lowest nearly triangular-ovate, from a somewhat heart-shaped base, acute, deeply pinnatifid; the divisions (six to ten pars) oblong, very obtuse, finely serrate or cut-toothed, the lowest pinnatifid-lobed; fruit dots as near the mid-vein as the margin; indusium round-reniform, the sinus mostly shallow, smooth and naked. Stipes and the stout creeping root-stock bearing broad and deciduous chaffy scales. (Gray's Manual of the Botany of the Northern United Stales. See also Wood's Class-Book of Botany, and Williamson's Ferns of Kentucky.)
THERE are few pleasures more agreeable to the botanist than the discovery of a new species, or of a new location for an old one. Botanical students are now so abundant that few new plants are to be found in the older settled portions of our country; but new locations for the rarer species are frequently discovered, and these occasionally in places wholly unexpected. In Philadelphia, now numbering a population of nearly a million, there are hundreds of botanists who are continually collecting the plants growing within ten or fifteen miles about it; but it is nowhere on record that any one has found within this limit the pretty fern we now describe. The earlier and famous botanists made special explorations of this district, and one of them, Dr. W. C. P. Barton, in 1818, published a "Compendium Florae Phil-adelphicae," or a description of the indigenous and naturalized plants found within a circuit of ten miles round Philadelphia; but there is no note of any one having found this species within this limit. It was therefore a great satisfaction to the brother of the writer of this, Mr. Joseph Meehan, when he found a few plants of the species, not half a mile from where the celebrated and sharp-eyed botanist, Thomas Nuttall, often made his home, and on ground over which the writer had often collected plants. This was the more surprising when on a subsequent examination a good number of specimens were found in the vicinity, from whence one was taken to furnish the illustration given here. The incident is of value as showing to the collector that he may not regard his work as completed, though he may be tempted to believe that he has found everything in a certain district. Repeated examinations may result in finding something he has never seen there before.
This - the Crested Fern - may be found quite late in the season, long after the flowers are gone, and indeed after many of the ferny race have wholly withered away. It was late in November when the writer made his first acquaintance with a living plant. We had searched in vain for it through a piece of hilly woods, where the golden-rods and asters floated away their filmy-crowned seeds with every step we took. As we descended to lower ground the withered remains of the Cinnamon Fern, the Lady Fern, and the Rattlesnake Grape-Fern could hardly be distinguished from the brown oak and other forest leaves that thickly strewed the ground. There was no sign of living green anywhere till we came to a small swamp in which were growing numerous fine specimens of the Swamp Alder and Poison Ash, over which grape vines and round-leaved Smilax made an immense bower, through which the sunlight glimmered, showing numerous buds of the skunk-cabbage already at the surface of the ground, awaiting the earliest breath of spring to fan it into life. Through this thicket a little stream meandered, its sides covered with Hypnum, Bryum, and other mosses, and springing up among them just one plant of the Crested Fern, which we had started out to find. The enthusiastic plant-collector may not perhaps endow his floral treasures with an actual personality, but yet they seem to talk with him, and tell him stories of the past, or remind him of something that has gone before; and the discovery of this single plant in its mossy seat, in this pretty autumn day, reminded one so much of the solitary Indian in Whittier's legendary story of the "Fountain," that it will not be out of place to quote the lines here:
" With the oak its shadow throwing
O'er his mossy seat, And the cool, sweet waters flowing
Softly at his feet, Closely by the fountain's rim That lone Indian seated him.
"Autumn's earliest frost had given
To the woods below Hues of beauty, such as heaven
Lendeth to its bow; And the soft breeze from the west Scarcely broke their dreamy rest."
As in the case with many an Indian, however, the loneliness was more apparent than real, for on another occasion, and not very far away, we found others, but always in low and somewhat inaccessible swamps, partially shaded by trees; and from the reports of various authors it is in just such situations that those who would seek may find. The fronds in the strongest cases under observation were about two feet high. The specimens illustrated are about the fair average, except that the stipe is about one-third the length of the foliaceous portion, which in our illustration had to be shortened to suit the size of the plate. The fruit dots appear on the upper portions of the strongest fronds, and it is remarkable that these fertile portions die first; the barren portions remain green until early winter, and the smaller of the barren ones continuing green till the new ones push in spring.
The species varies much in different locations, but chiefly in the lobing of the pinnules. In all the specimens from Pennsylvania and Delaware the author has examined, the lowest and barren pinnules are the only ones that are pinnatifid, the upper ones being simply crenate. In these cases the fruit dots are arranged so as to have one to each little division, and about midway between the end of the division and the mid-vein. As we get further north we find the fertile fronds deeply pinnatifid; and in such cases the fruit dots form a line alongside the mid-rib of the ultimate divisions. Our Fig. 2, drawn from a dried specimen from New England, exhibits this character. Other botanists have noted that the fruit dots are sometimes nearer to the mid-vein than to the margin, and in other cases the reverse, but in the typical form they are about midway. Again in the more northern specimen, Fig. 2, we see that the upper portion of the fertile divisions are very coarsely toothed. It is probably from these coarse segments that the species derived the name cristatum, or crested, a character nearly wanting in the form illustrated.
The Crested Fern is a native of the north of Europe as well as of the United States, and has been known from the time of Linnaeus, who named it Polypodium cristatum, the genus Aspidium not having been founded till Swartz established it in 1800. Since that time succeeding botanists have endeavored to make other genera out of Aspidium, and have carried our Crested Fern into their several classifications. Thus we find it in some works referred to as Lastraa eristata, Nephrodium cristatum, Polystichum cristatum, and Dryopteris cristata. It is worthy of note that Professor Asa Gray, who in the earlier editions of his "Manual" gave it the last name, has abandoned it in the later one from whence our description was taken; and this shows how nice and how imperfectly understood are the natural limits which divide the genera of ferns. Considering Chapman's Aspidium Floridanum to be only the Crested Shield-Fern, we find it along the seaboard Atlantic States, barely reaching Kentucky and Ohio westwardly, and becoming more common as it goes northward to Canada. It is sparingly found in England, but becomes more abundant as it approaches eastwardly the American continent.
1. Fronds of Pennsylvania specimens, with the stipes shortened.
2. Northern form with crested lobes, from a dried specimen.