Saturday, 15 June 2013

The fairy fern hints at summer

There are signs of summer in a bucket in my back yard in Newcastle: the fairy fern has sprouted green shoots. Green, feathery branches have grown out from a reddish base, visible in the photo amongst the smooth round duckweed plants. Fairy Fern, Azolla filicoides, is a native of the west coast of the USA, not that these tiny individuals came over the Atlantic. They came from Ellington at the south end of Druridge Bay. The large pond in the village has harboured these New World arrivals for many years. The ones in the bucket in my back yard were a test to see how they would fare through the winter, being plants of warmer climes. Would they cope with being iced up? They were frozen into a solid block of ice, the ferns turning a blotchy red, which seems to be a cold weather response, but they survived and now are sprouting delicate, doily-like new growth.

In a warm year they form a dense mat over the surface of Ellington pond, deceptively like a lawn but, on closer inspection, a serrated fuzz of fronds oddly resembling the jagged canopy of a conifer plantation in miniature. For me the dense mats seem to coincide with drousy, heavy weather, thunder threatening through the heat in late August. In a bad year, when the cold and wet do not suit their west coast roots, they hunker down in circular rafts, nestled amongst the other plants around the edge of the pond. The managers of Ellington Pond have tried to be rid of it, but even one tiny frond is enough to retain a bridgehead and begin the recolonisation. Quite how Azolla got to Ellington remains a mystery and the fronds have not turned up further north in England, although a scatter occur throughout the Central Belt in Scotland. There is a touch of exotic mystery to its presence, almost a glamour, entirely consistent with the Bay’s sense of being between worlds.

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