Chapter XXIV. A Stroll among the Ferns.

THE Fern leaf, like the Rose, is a universal favourite. Wherever the graceful frond is known, there it is beloved. If so cherished in England, where varieties are not the finest nor most numerous, how much more should it be cherished in the Southern Colonies, its own especial home? There one may exclaim:—

O, the dear Lady Fern! so lovely and green;
'Tis the gentlest and dearest of plants I have seen.
As a veil o'er a bride the drooping fronds fall,
But enhancing the charms while covering all.

O, the dear Bracken Fern! so honest, though plain;
I have welcomed thee oft, and welcome again;
For the Kangaroo loves thy shelt'ring retreat,
And the modest wee flow'r thou shield'st at thy feet.

O, the grand old Tree Fern! the lord of the vale;
Thou hast oft 'neath thy fronds heard lovers' tell tale;
And thy feathers waved when the sigh of the maid
From her lonesome heart rose beneath thy dark shade.

It is thus, like the Fern, my true love has gained,—
By a charm, a sweet grace, a coyness unfeigned,—

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The fond worship I yield, the tenderness feel;
And this love I mean by a marriage to seal.

We are not bound to say that every rambler among Tasmanian Ferns is affected exactly after the sentimental style of the poet, but we venture to affirm that more matches have been made up among ferns than in association with any other plants. Tulips are too obtrusively fine, and roses too joyous and gay, to suit bashful lovers; but the green leaf is soothing to restless natures, its lace work of beauty excites pleasure without distracting attention, and the calm shade of a fernery is suggestive of tenderness, while evoking the soft avowal of a pent-up passion.

A disagreeable old bachelor,—and such a lost creature is to be found even in that sunny clime,—has given his opinion about matters in these words:—

‘This Tasmania is well enough for some things. It suits my gout and my liver. It suits my pocket and my health. But it is a most provoking place for matrimony. Banns of marriage seem born in the very air; at any rate, float pretty freely on it. Too many flowers and shady walks by half, and a vast deal too much leisure for young girls. If old Malthus rose from the grave, and lived here, he would shout out, “Close up every Fern-tree valley.” And so say I.’

But Horace was by no means of his school of thought. He had a friend, too, whose views of Natural History, in this particular instance, decidedly

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coincided with his own. Is it wonderful, therefore, that they sometimes sought the Fern-shade?

Everybody knows that—

Where the morning dew lies longest,
There the Lady Fern grows strongest.

This is pronounced the Queen of English Ferns. Its drooping leaves are deeply cut. Its fairy-like delicacy, its maidenly bashfulness, and its gentleness of beauty have captivated hearts in all ages. The old writers, who conferred that name upon this most graceful of the family, called the sturdier, rougher, stronger kind the Male Fern.

The common Brake, or Bracken, may be considered a male fern for its stalwart character, but not because it fails in motherly qualities. In Tasmania it throws up its green tops as high as it did in the glen, when Rhoderick Dhu's men lay concealed there. But the Brake or ordinary Male Fern contains much alkali, and is of commercial service, therefore, to soap and glass manufacturers.

Horace undertook, in his gracious benevolence and philosophical condescension, to explain some of the ferny mysteries to a young disciple of botany, who, if indulging in occasional sportive fancies, was, on the whole, a tolerable listener.

‘That dear, darling Maiden-hair!’ exclaimed the aforesaid young disciple, as she stooped to a specimen of the lovely Adiantum. ‘Tell me all about it, my dear master?’

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‘You know the other name for Maiden-hair is Venus-locks, and pretty enough for her use. Alas! what captives are made of men by these seductive locks of Venus.’

‘Now, pray don't go off here, Horace. If taken like that again, I shall certainly coo-ee for assistance. It would be no joke here, in this lonely place, with a man beside himself. Compose yourself, and go on with your lesson.’

‘I will, my tyrant. To compare our Maiden-hair with other ferns, we must just look at the sori.’

‘And what are those?’

‘The dots you notice. These are not always on the back of the frond, but at the edge. They cover the seed.’

‘Is the brown dust that is scattered the seed?’

‘Yes. Many of these sori have an indusium or cover. Some are rounded; others are kidney-shaped. The capsules conceal the spores or seed. Some of the cases have an elastic ring to allow of the escape of the spores. Covers are attached by the centre or by one side. In the Maiden-hair the patches of sori are different to those of the Lady Fern.’

‘How are they in the Tree Fern?’

‘In the Alsophila, or Grove-loving Fern, the sori are globular, but are destitute of the indusium. In the Bristle Fern, growing on the Tree Fern, the cover is tubular. The veins beyond the fronds give the bristle appearance. In the Brake, or Pteris, the sori are in a line at the edge of the frond.’

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‘But yonder is one that is very delicate.’

‘That is a Filmy Fern. Our Heart's Tongue Fern is like the English one.’

‘Now I feel myself perfectly sage in the matter. But I am a little curious how to detect a male fern.’

‘It has a particular venation in the leaf, being forked at the mid-rib.’

‘Thank you, I like to be on my guard against all males.’

‘Present company excepted, my lady.’

‘Your wit must save you further reproaches. But what is that climbing fern?’

‘That is the Gleichenia, and called Zigzag by your friend Mr Hannaford, who discourses so well about the subject.’

‘I am thinking, Horace, of collecting some fern seed next St John's Eve. You know then I shall have the power of rendering myself invisible.’

‘Yet not, I trust, to me.’

‘I don't know. There are times when a girl would be glad of the charm, although she saw her lover come to the gate. Fairies don't make their company too cheap, and the maidens ought to have the same privilege.’

‘If so, every lover would possess himself of Aladdin's Lamp, which he could rub to summon the lady to appear at his pleasure before him.’

‘Then, on that consideration, I would prefer to retain my visible form. I have no desire to be at the beck and call of a lamp polisher.’