Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Tree Ferns

At first, I thought it was a snake! Growing up in West Virginia (with both copperheads and timber rattlers), my brain was long conditioned to watch along the ground for long cylindrical shapes with some sort of diamond-like pattern (unfortunately, the pattern doesn't seem to show up as clearly in my pictures as it does in real life). It only took a split second to realize this wasn't a snake crawling along the rocks (in the picture below), but that initial reaction from my brain had left an indelible impression.
Once I realized I was safe, I recognized some familiarity with this object. I knew I had seen this unusual piece of wood before, but could not quite remember where. After all, it isn't like I had spent much time in tropical forests before I arrived here with the Peace Corps. Where had I seen this?

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.

I had posted the picture above in 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.

In talking about this with folks in my village, I found out that I don't need to hike two hours up the creek to find fern trees. Although they are somewhat rare, it turns out there were a few on the hillside above our school. The pictures were not as impressive as those from the first time I saw fern trees, but at least in the picture below you can get a sense of the fern leaves extending outward from the ends of each frond (Google offered me a "stylized" version of my original photo, which I decided to use).
There was one tree that was down, and some of my students helped me bring a portion of it back down to the school for closer inspection (see below). Fern trees are hollow (as was this example we found on the ground), and some of my students tell me that snakes use them for hiding places. I'm not sure whether that is true, or just part of their general aversion to snakes—even though they don't have any venomous ones here. That there are no poisonous snakes is a fact for which I am very grateful, going back to that day about a month ago when I saw the picture at the top of this story. Let's just hope my brain doesn't get too lazy about watching for copperheads and rattlesnakes when I return!

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