It became apparent that the branch was from the stand of tree ferns that we had stumbled into during a hike up one of the creeks (but called "rivers" here, regardless of size) way above my village. I loved looking up the long thin trunks, to the top where the branches burst out in a radial pattern, allowing rings of blue sky to show through. I don't think the photograph below really does justice to the incredible beauty I saw that day.my previous story about that hike, and some of you commented on it. Since others were captivated by the tree ferns, I decided to do a little research and write this longer story about them. That is when I realized exactly where I had seen this particular diamond-shaped pattern before.
Ferns are simple plants that reproduce via spores--they have neither seeds nor flowers. Ferns have been around for over 300 million years, and were the dominant part of the vegetation during the Carboniferous Period (also recognized as "the age of ferns"). Fern trees (also known as cyatheales) comprised much of the swampy forests that over eons of time became compressed into coal seams.
Eureka! That is where I had seen them before! It may have been in the West Virginia State Museum at the Culture Center next to our capitol, the coal mining museum at WVU, the Exhibition Coal Mine in Beckley, or perhaps at the West Virginia Geological Museum at Cheat Lake. At least one of these places (and more likely all of them) has intact cyatheales fossils that clearly show this diamond-like pattern that I remembered.
Finding such fossils inside coal mines is not unusual. The museums in West Virginia that I mentioned have plenty of fossil examples on display. In fact, I ran across a Smithsonian story about a fossilized forest that covers four square miles of a coal mine in Illinois. It reminded me of the day I got to spend underground in a real working coal mine that I wrote about in my previous blog.
Since realizing the connection between these ancient trees that once covered most of West Virginia, and which can still be found in pockets on my current island home, I have become quite fond of them. The fern tree has become a connection to my native state. I can now more readily discern a tree fern from a palm tree or a papaya tree, both of which long trunks with a burst of leaves at the top. Below is a long-distance picture taken across a steep ravine of a single fern tree (perhaps 15-20 feet tall) in a small clearing surrounded by traditional ferns.