Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Flowerless Plants by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Flowerless Plants by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Christmas Fern

Teacher's Story

"No shivering frond that shuns the blast sways

on its slender chaffy stem;

Full veined and lusty green it stands,

of all the wintry woods the gem."

—W. N. Clute.

The rootstock of the fern is an humble example of "rising on stepping stones of our dead selves," this being almost literally true of the tree-ferns. The rootstock which is a stem and not a root—has, like other stems, a growing tip from which, each year, it sends up into the world several beautiful green fronds, and numerous rootlets down into the earth. These graceful fronds rejoice the world and our eyes for the summer, and make glad the one who, in winter, loves to wander often in the woods to inquire after the welfare of his many friends during their period of sleeping and waking. These fronds, after giving their message of winter cheer, and after the following summer has made the whole woodland green and the young fronds are growing thriftily from the tip of the rootstock, die down, and in midsummer we can find the old fronds lying sere and brown, with broken stipes, just back of the new fern clump; if we examine the rootstock we can detect behind them, remains of the stems of the fronds of year before last; and still farther behind we may trace all the stems of fronds which gladdened the world three years ago. Thus we learn that this rootstock may have been creeping on an inch or so each season for many years, always busy with the present and giving no heed to its dead past. One of the chief differences between our ferns and the tree-ferns of the tropics, which we often see in greenhouses, is that in the tree-fern the rootstock rises in the air instead of creeping on, or below, the surface of the ground. This upright rootstock of the tree-fern also bears fronds at its tip, and its old fronds gradually die down, leaving it rough below its crown of green plumes.


The Christmas fern.   The contracted tips of some of the fronds consist of fruiting pinnæ.

Photo by Verne Morton.

The Christmas fern has its green stipe, or petiole, and its rachis, or midrib, more or less covered with ragged, brownish scales, which give it an unkempt appearance. Its pinnæ, or leaflets, are individually very pretty; in color they are dark, shining green, lance-shaped, with a pointed lobe or ear at the base projecting upward. The edges of the pinnæ are delicately toothed, each point armed with a little spine, and the veins are fine, straight and free to the margin; the lower pinnæ often have the earlike lobe completely severed.

In studying a fertile fern from above, we notice that about a dozen pairs of the pinnæ near the tip are narrowed and roughened and are more distinctly toothed on the margins. Examining them underneath, we find on each a double row of circular raised dots which are the fruit-dots, or sori; there is a row between the midrib and margin on each side, and also a double row extending up into the point at the base. Early in the season these spots look like pale blisters, later they turn pale brown, each blister having a depression at its center; by the middle of June, masses of tiny globules, not larger than pin points, push out from beneath the margin of these dots. The blisterlike membrane is simply a cover for the growing spores, and is called the indusium;  by July it shrivels into an irregular scroll, still clinging to the pinnule by its depressed center; and by this time the profusion of tiny globules covers the entire under side of the pinna like a brown fuzz. If we scrape off some of this fuzz and examine it with a lens, we can see that it consists of numberless little globules, each with a stem to attach it to the leaf; these are the spore-cases, or sporangia, each globule being packed full of spores which, even through the lens, look like yellowish powder. But each particle of this dust has its own structure and contains in its heart the living fern-substance.


1. Fertile leaflet of Christmas fern showing indusia and spore-cases.
2. An indusium and spore-cases, enlarged.
3. A spore-case, enlarged.
4. A spore-case discharging spores, enlarged.

Not all the fronds of the fern clump bear these fruit-dots. The ones we select for decoration are usually the sterile fronds, for the fertile ones are not so graceful, and many ignorant people think the brown spore-cases are a fungus. The Christmas fern being evergreen and very firm in texture, is much used in holiday decoration, hence its common name, which is more easily remembered than Polystichum acrostichoides,  which is its real name. It loves to grow in well-shaded woodlands, liking better the trees which shed their leaves than the evergreens; it is indeed well-adapted to thrive in damp, cold shade; it is rarely found on slopes which face the south, and sunshine kills it.


The common polypody often mistaken for the Christmas fern.

Photo by Verne Morton.


The Christmas Fern

Leading thought—The fern has a creeping underground stem called the rootstock, which pushes forward and sends up fresh fronds each year. Some of the fronds of the Christmas fern bear spores on the lower surface of the terminal pinnæ.

Method—This lesson should be given during the latter part of May, when the fruit-dots are still green. Take up a fern and transplant it, in a dish of moss, in the schoolroom, and later plant it in some convenient shady place. The pupils should sketch the fertile frond from the upper side so as to fix in their minds the contracted pinnæ of the tip; one of the lower pinnæ should be drawn in detail, showing the serrate edge, the ear and the venation. The teacher should use the following terms constantly and insistently, so as to make the fern nomenclature a part of the school vocabulary, and thus fit the pupils for using fern manuals.

A frond  is all of the fern which grows on one stem from the rootstock; the blade  is that portion which bears leaflets; the stipe  is the stem or petiole; the rachis  is the midrib and is a continuation of the stipe; the pinnule  is a leaflet of the last division; the pinna  is a chief division of the midrib or rachis when the fern is compound; the sori  are the fruit dots; the indusium  is the membrane covering the fruiting organs; the sporangia  are the tiny brown globules, and are the spore-cases; the spores  make up the fine dust which comes from the spore-cases. It would be well to make a diagram on the blackboard of the fern with its parts named, so that the pupils may consult it while studying ferns.


Leaf-print of a fern with the parts named.
This fern is twice pinnate.


1. Study a stump of the Christmas ferns. Are there any withered fronds? Where do they join the rootstock? Do the green fronds come from the same place on the rootstock as the withered ones? Do the green ferns come from near the tip of the rootstock? Can you find the growing tip of the rootstock? Can you trace back and find where the fronds of last year and year before last grew? Does that part of the rootstock seem alive now? Can you find the true root of the fern?

2. Take a frond of the Christmas fern. Is the stem, or stipe, and the midrib, or rachis, smooth or rough? What color are the scales of the stalk? Do you think that these scales once wrapped the fern bud?

3. Does each frond of a clump have the same number of pinnæ on each side? Can you find fronds where the pinnæ near the tip are narrower than those below? Take a lower pinna and draw it carefully, showing its shape, its edges and its veins. Is there a point, or ear, at the base of every pinna? Is it a separate lobe or a mere point of the pinna?

4. Take one of the narrow pinnæ near the tip of the frond, and examine it beneath. Can you see some circular, roundish blisterlike dots? Are they dented at the center? How many of these dots on a pinna? Make a little sketch showing how they are arranged on the pinna and on the little earlike point. Look at the fruiting pinnæ of a fern during July, and describe how they look then.

5. Do all the fronds of a fern clump have these narrowed spore-bearing pinnæ? Do you know what those fronds are called that bear the fruit-dots?

6. Where do you find the Christmas fern growing? Do you ever find it in a sunny place? Why is it called the Christmas fern?



Dance to the beat of the rain, little Fern

And spread out your palms again,

And say, "Tho' the sun

Hath my vesture spun,

He had labored, alas, in vain,

But for the shade

That the Cloud hath made,

And the gift of the Dew and the Rain."

Then laugh and upturn

All your fronds, little Fern,

And rejoice in the beat of the rain!

—John B. Tabb.

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