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.
Somewhat hairy. Sterile division of the frond about the middle of the stipe, ternately divided to the base, sessile, the divisions four to six in long, broad-ovate, or somewhat deltoid in their outline, bipinnatifid, green; pinnae one to two inches long, deeply pinnatifid, the lobes cuneate-oblong, incisely dentate at the apex. Fertile portion on an erect stipe nine to eighteen inches high, in a reddish-tawny compound spike two to five inches in length. (Darlington's Flora Cestrica. See also Gray's Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States, Chapman's Flora of the Southern United States, Wood's Class-Book of Botany, Eaton's Ferns of North America, and Williamson's Ferns of Kentucky.)
THE leading description has been taken from Darlington's "Flora Cestrica," chiefly because the drawing is from a Pennsylvania specimen, and further because it may serve to illustrate how far the knowledge of the origin of the various parts of a plant's structure has progressed since Dr. Darlington's time. The work from which we quote was published in 1853, and at that time it was by no means widely known that every part of a plant's structure was formed in its earliest stages out of what might be leaves. This knowledge, however, has to be wholly inferred from results; for the most powerful microscope has failed to discover this early individual leaf-form in any particular plant, before it takes on the peculiarities by which we are able to distinguish one part from another. At the time of which we write this science, known as Morphology, was comparatively new, and Dr. Darlington, as we may judge from some of his writings at that time, was a believer in its doctrines; but we can see by the way the description is written, though it accurately describes our plant, he did not understand the full import of morphology in descriptive botany. He looks upon the stipe as a simple structure, which finally divides, the division taking place about the middle of the frond. But instead of being a simple structure, we know that in its origin it is compound. The fertile portion is one whole frond, having primarily a separate stipe which has been clasped by the stipe of the barren frond, and the two have grown so closely together, that to all appearances, and quite accurately enough for botanical description, it appears as one simple stipe, out of which the barren frond seems to grow. In this species the whole stipe of the barren portion has united with the other, and this is the reason why it seems sessile, or without any leaf stalk; but in other species it is only partially united, and then the frond seems stalked; or again it is wholly free, and there are two distinct stipes, as the petioles of ferns are called, and it is from these comparisons that we learn how much the early union or early freedom of parts has to do with final results in form. In earlier times, before this knowledge was gained, the divisions of the leaves were deemed important characters; but while leaf-divisions involve the question of an union or freedom of parts, they are parts that in their final development are still leaf-blade, and are of less consequence than the changes which occur in the earlier stages of plant life. Hence, if the five divisions of the frond were to be found united, so as to make one uniform surface, the collector might reasonably suspect he had but a form of Botrychium Virginianum; but if he were to find one as finely divided as this, but with the fruiting stalk more widely separate from the barren stalk, he would be much more likely to have another species.
Our morphological lesson may be carried further, so as to show how the fruit is formed out of leaves or leafy substances. The fertile frond was, in early life, precisely the same as the barren one; but the power of union was greater in one than the other, and the final divisions in the barren frond (a, a, in Fig. 1) have been rolled up to form the spore cases (a, a, in Fig. 3). There is no reason, therefore, in the nature of things, why sometimes green leafy blades may not appear on weak fertile fronds, and round fruit-case among the green blades on a stronger barren one. Instances of the former, however, are not on record; but it is not rare to find the latter. The writer has seen a few specimens, and others have been noted in botanical works. In the 3d volume of the American Naturalist, Mr. Henry Oilman notes a very remarkable case, wherein not merely some of the divisions of the barren frond became fertile, but another fertile frond came out of the main stalk of the barren one, indicating the probability from the morphological laws pointed out already, that three primordial fronds had been rolled up together instead of the usual two.
Though the fertile frond has not been known to vary so as to have some segments frondose, it has been known to vary in form. In our illustration (Fig. 2), we see the main divisions correspond nearly with those in the barren one. But in the 1st volume of the Botanical Gazette, Mr. I. C. Martindale and Mr. Davenport note that sometimes the upper portion is suppressed, and the lower divisions lengthened, making all the fruit-bearing stalks of nearly equal length.
The English name, "Grape Fern," is merely a translation of its Latin name, Botrychium, referring to its grape-like fruit. "Rattle-snake," as applied to this particular species, seems to have been first noted by Clayton, the early Virginia collector, who, when sending his specimens to Gronovius, in Europe, remarked that it was "Rattle snake-root Fern." This would seem to indicate an impression that it had something in common with other "snake roots" as a curer of snake bites; but no subsequent author makes any such reference, and it is more probable that the name was suggested by the resemblance of the spore cases to the tail of a rattle-snake. In regard to its medical qualities, Rafinesque says it is but a mild astringent.
This fern is very much admired, and deservedly so, for there are few which can offer more real elements of beauty. The ideal which connects a large number of weak individuals with the strength of a few supporting ones, is always pleasing; and we have this beautiful ideal remarkably well illustrated in the fern before us. The innumerable little thin and delicate leaflets on the strong stipe and main divisions of the frond have a singularly harmonious effect. For some reason, which we have never seen analyzed in treatises on the theory of beauty, the mind loves to trace resemblances in what it sees to pictures already stored away. In this respect the Rattle-snake Grape-fern is conspicuous. In old times, before plants had a specific as well as a generic name, writers referred to it chiefly in connection with these resemblances. Plumier wrote of it as "the Osmunda, with the roots like an Asphodel;" Clayton "the Lunaria, with the leaves of a Matricaria;" and in more modern times Hooker and Baker - "the leaf in its cutting resembles Anthriscus sylves-tris." The Latin specific names are also full of these suggestions. Thus it has been called Botrychium cicutarium, and Botrychium anthemoidcs, - all these names from the resemblance to chamomile, parsley or others among umbelliferous or composite plants.
Outside of these more popular reflections, the critical botanist will find the buds at the base of the stipes interesting, and Eaton remarks that "the epidermis is composed of cellules with sinuous margins." Its delicate fronds turn yellow in the fall, and wholly disappear before winter sets in.
In its geographical relations it is remarkable for the extent of territory it covers. It is found as far south as Brazil, and sweeps up through the eastern United States as far west as Texas, Arkansas, Colorado and Kansas, extending then more westwardly to Oregon, crossing to Asia, into Japan, and being found in some of its forms in Northern Europe. It is, in all probability, one of the oldest inhabitants of the globe, and has exhibited a tenacity in holding its own through the ages that is very remarkable.
1. A full-sized stipe, with barren and fertile frond.
2. Fertile frond.
3. Enlarged sporangia, showing the transverse openings and their relation at a, a, to the divisions of the frond.