We Walk Invisible

In 1884, Thomas Folkard published his charming and thorough Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics. Embracing the Myths, Superstitions, Traditions, and Folk-Lore of the Plant Kingdom (a copy of which is in the Huntington Library Rare Book collections). In the many chapters, Folkard covers a wealth of cultural information regarding plants from around the world.

One topic explores the mysterious nature of Ferns, at least what folk wisdom and ancient writers said about ferns. People knew ferns reproduce; young fern plants show up in moist, shady places. And plants, they observed, grow from seed; the circle of life is complete as seed come from flowers. The mystery, then, was the absence of seed in ferns.

Platycerium superbum at The Huntington, showing off its spores

Ferns make spores, but lacking good magnification (lenses and microscopes), spores were just dust, like pollen – and nobody suspected that spores or pollen could grow into a plant. So the life cycle of ferns was curious. New plants appeared, but where were the seed? Were they invisible? Do ferns blossom and go to seed so quickly as to avoid notice? What magic do ferns hold?

Spores on lower leaflets of Angiopteris evicta
Sori (spore generating areas) on the lower surface of a fern leaf

We know, now, there is magic.., the same magic of cell division and sexual reproduction that perpetuates life for all organisms. Beginning with Robert Hooke (1665), researchers revealed the mysteries of cell biology, relying greatly on what we’d call citizen science today. In the unfolding of our understanding of plant reproduction, one of the great cases of self-taught accomplishment came with Wilhelm Hofmeister’s 1851 publication of his studies describing the ways of ferns and mosses.

A young fern plant that sprouted from the fertilized egg created in the green flap of tissue (the prothallus) to the right. The prothallus is an independent plant (about a half an inch long) that grew from a fern spore, and generates eggs and sperm. The “fern” plant is diploid (each cell has two sets of chromosomes), while its alter ego, the prothallus is haploid (each cell has only one set of chromosomes.

Hofmeister (who then moved from his job publishing music into a full professorship studying plant life cycles) detailed a world of two very different-looking plants that alternate in the life cycle. Yes, between one fern and the next, there is a tiny green plant that you only see when you know what to look for and where to search.

Fern prothallus and young leafy plant (same as in above enlargement)

But that was all revealed between 1665 and 1851. Back in 1600, when Shakespeare’s Henry IV was first performed, folktales associated ferns with magical powers, even with witches and devils. Fanciful thought was given to the idea that ferns flower and produce seed at midnight of Midsummer, that is, St John’s Eve. Perhaps, stories suggested, fern seed held magical possibilities; perhaps they could confer invisibility.

Thomas Folkard dedicates several pages to describing renditions of this tale and others concerning ferns. Even in 1600, however, it seems stories about fern seed and invisibility were never truly credible. Gerard, Shakespeare’s contemporary, makes no mention of such fables in his treatment of ferns (Gerard’s Herball, 1597). In the end, it’s superstition, and to make a fine story, Folkard resorts to citing the tomfoolery and shenanigans of Gadshill, Shakespeare’s erstwhile Henry IV highwayman who robs with impunity, claiming “We have the receipt of fern seed; we walk invisible.” The bard knew a good line when he wrote one.

A vining fern crozier, Hawaii

Jan-Peter Frahm, 2000. “The Discovery of the Life Cycle of Bryophytes by Wilhelm Hofmeister (1824-1877)” The Bryologist, Vol. 103(1 ): 87-89 Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3244282 https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3244282.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Ad9d28090af047c2ed9198f9c2524269d

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