Nature on our doorsteps: Fascinating ferns

By Rosaleen Dwyer

Rosaleen Dwyer is the County Heritage Officer at South Dublin County Council – every week she gives us an insight into the natural heritage around us and the beautiful biodiversity of the plants and creatures

Ferns are a very ancient group of plants, appearing in the fossil record about 360 million years ago.

They dominated the world for many long ages, forming tall, extensive forests of tree ferns. 

Ferns produce spores on the undersides of their leaves 1

Ferns produce spores on the undersides of their leaves

 

As these died and decomposed, their remains accumulated and were compressed to form coal and oil.

Today, the smaller relatives of the ancient tree ferns grow in damp woodlands and hedgerows, and along shady riverbanks.

In the plant world, ferns represent an important evolutionary link between mosses and the more evolved flowering plants. 

Ferns were the first plants to develop internal tubes of special cells that carry water and food throughout the plant.

This allowed them to evolve into much taller and more robust plants than the simpler mosses.

The bright green of Harts Tongue Fern brings colour to a shady spot 1

: The bright green of Hart's Tongue Fern brings colour to a shady spot

The lifecycle of ferns is considered primitive, however, involving two distinct stages.  

Firstly, the leaves produce millions of spores which float away in the wind. 

When these settle on damp soil, they grow into small, temporary plantlets which represent the second stage in the lifecycle. Male and female cells on these plantlets fertilize to form the new leafy fern, starting stage one of the cycle all over again. 

Ferns have been around for a very long time and while they may be considered primitive, their feathery fronds are a fascinating link to the time when dinosaurs roamed the planet.

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