A fern is any one of a group of about 20,000 species of plants classified in the phylum or division Pteridophyta, also known as Filicophyta. The group is also referred to as Polypodiophyta, or Polypodiopsida when treated as a subdivision of tracheophyta (vascular plants). The study of ferns and other pteridophytes is called pteridology, and one who studies ferns and other pteridophytes is called a pteridologist. The term "pteridophyte" has traditionally been used to describe all seedless vascular plants, making it synonymous with "ferns and fern allies". This can be confusing since members of the fern phylum Pteridophyta are also sometimes referred to as pteridophytes.
The stereotypic image of ferns growing in moist shady woodland nooks is far from being a complete picture of the habitats where ferns can be found growing. Fern species live in a wide variety of habitats, from remote mountain elevations, to dry desert rock faces, to bodies of water or in open fields. Ferns in general may be thought of as largely being specialists in marginal habitats, often succeeding in places where various environmental factors limit the success of flowering plants. Some ferns are among the world's most serious weed species, including the bracken fern growing in the British highlands, or the mosquito fern (Azolla) growing in tropical lakes, both species form large aggressively spreading colonies. There are four particular types of habitats that ferns are found in: moist, shady forests; crevices in rock faces, especially when sheltered from the full sun; acid wetlands including bogs and swamps; and tropical trees, where many species are epiphytes.
Many ferns depend on associations with mycorrhizal fungi. Many ferns only grow within specific pH ranges; for instance, the climbing fern (Lygodium) of eastern North America will only grow in moist, intensely acid soils, while the bulblet bladder fern (Cystopteris bulbifera), with an overlapping range, is only ever found on limestone.
Like the sporophytes of seed plants, those of ferns consist of:
The gametophytes of ferns, however, are very different from those of seed plants. They typically consist of:
One interesting difference between sporophytes and gametophytes might be summed up by the saying that "Nothing eats ferns, but everything eats gametophytes." This is an over-simplification, but it is true that gametophytes are often difficult to find in the field because they are far more likely to be food than are the sporophytes.
Ferns have traditionally been grouped in the Class Filices, but modern classifications assign them their own division in the plant kingdom, called Pteridophyta.
Traditionally, three discrete groups of plants have been considered ferns: two groups of eusporangiate ferns--families Ophioglossaceae (adders-tongues, moonworts, and grape-ferns) and Marattiaceae--and the leptosporangiate ferns. The Marattiaceae are a primitive group of tropical ferns with a large, fleshy rhizome, and are now thought to be a sibling taxon to the main group of ferns, the leptosporangiate ferns. Several other groups of plants were considered "fern allies": the clubmosses, spikemosses, and quillworts in the Lycopodiophyta, the whisk ferns in Psilotaceae, and the horsetails in the Equisetaceae. More recent genetic studies have shown that the Lycopodiophyta are only distantly related to any other vascular plants, having radiated evolutionarily at the base of the vascular plant clade, while both the whisk ferns and horsetails are as much "true" ferns as are the Ophioglossoids and Marattiaceae. In fact, the whisk ferns and Ophioglossoids are demonstrably a clade, and the horsetails and Marattiaceae are arguably another clade. Molecular data - which remain poorly constrained for many parts of the plants' phylogeny - have been supplemented by recent morphological observations supporting the inclusion of Equisetaceae within the ferns, notably relating to the construction of their sperm, and peculiarities of their roots (Smith et al 2006, and references therein).
One possible means of treating this situation is to consider only the leptosporangiate ferns as "true" ferns, while considering the other three groups as "fern allies". In practice, numerous classification schemes have been proposed for ferns and fern allies, and there has been little consensus among them. A new classification by Smith et al. (2006) is based on recent molecular systematic studies, in addition to morphological data. This classification divides ferns into four classes:
The last group includes most plants familiarly known as ferns. Modern research supports older ideas based on morphology that the Osmundaceae diverged early in the evolutionary history of the leptosporangiate ferns; in certain ways this family is intermediate between the eusporangiate ferns and the leptosporangiate ferns.
The complete classification scheme proposed by Smith et al. (2006; alternative names in brackets):
Ferns of the genus Azolla are very small, floating plants that do not look like ferns. Called mosquito fern, they are used as a biological fertilizer in the rice paddies of southeast Asia, taking advantage of their ability to fix nitrogen from the air into compounds that can then be used by other plants.
A great many ferns are grown in horticulture as landscape plants, for cut foliage and as houseplants, especially the Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata). The Bird's Nest Fern, Asplenium nidus, is also popular, and the staghorn ferns, genus Platycerium, have a considerable following.
Several ferns are noxious weeds or invasive species, including Japanese climbing fern (Lygodium japonicum), mosquito fern and sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis). Giant water fern (Salvinia molesta) is one of the world's worst aquatic weeds. The important fossil fuel coal consists of the remains of primitive plants, including ferns.
Ferns have been studied and found to be useful in the removal of heavy metals, especially arsenic, from the soil
Other ferns with some economic significance include:
In Slavic folklore, ferns are believed to bloom once a year, during the Ivan Kupala night. Although it's exceedingly difficult to find, anyone who takes a look of a fern flower will be happy and rich for the rest of his life. Similarly in Finland, the tradition holds that one who finds the seed of a fern in bloom on Midsummer night, will by the possession of it be able to travel under a glamour of invisibility and shall be guided to the locations where eternally blazing Will o' the wisps mark the spot of hidden treasure caches.
"Pteridomania"' is a term for the Victorian era craze of fern collecting and fern motifs in decorative art including pottery, glass, metals, textiles, wood, printed paper, and sculpture "appearing on everything from christening presents to gravestones and memorials." The fashion for growing ferns indoors led to the development of the Wardian case, a glazed cabinet that would exclude air pollutants and maintain the necessary humidity.
The dried form of ferns was also used in other arts, being used as a stencil or directly inked for use in a design. The botanical work, The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland, is a notable example of this type of nature printing. The process, patented by the artist and publisher Henry Bradbury, impressed a specimen on to a soft lead plate. The first publication to demonstrate this was Alois Auer's The Discovery of the Nature Printing-Process.
In addition, the book Where the Red Fern Grows has elicited many questions about the mythical "red fern" named in the book. There is no such known plant, although there has been speculation that the oblique grape-fern, Sceptridium dissectum, could be referred to here, because it is known to appear on disturbed sites and its fronds may redden over the winter.
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