Deep Woods, the Appalachian Gametophyte, and Ohio Geobotany
Asplenium – The Spleenworts
Deep Woods preserve, in the Hocking Hills region of Ohio, is home to several species of the spleenwort ferns. These peculiar ferns are quite diverse, and specialized to live on moist, rocky outcrops, such as the blackhand sandstone found here. 8 species may be found in Ohio. Over the weekend, I found 3 in Deep Woods preserve: Ebony, Lobed, and Maidenhair Spleenwort.
Walking Fern (Asplenium rhizophyllum). This fern clonally reproduced through the peculiar use of stoloniferous fronds – everywhere the leaves touch down on a moss mat on rock, a new fern grows, identical to its parent. This picture was taken of a fern growing on moss on a dolomite outcrop in Clifton Gorge.
Notice that I mentioned there are two subspecies of Maidenhair Spleenwort, with two different host rocks! This is a clue of a broad pattern in Ohio plant distribution as it relates to soil: limey limestone in the west, acidic sandstone in the east. Many plants follow this distribution pattern.
Check this out! This is the botanically puzzlin’ Appalachian Gametophyte, a fern that has lost its ability to sexually reproduce, spreading only through vegetative propagules. This fern is stuck in its haploid stage, and resembles a liverwort except upon close inspection, and probably originates before the ice ages, during which it likely lost its ability to reproduce. So, it is stuck in place, persisting in perennially moist and temperate sandstone recesses scattered throughout the region. Reproductively isolated, this fern is a relic of a time of more promiscuity, and is now just watching the earth turn from the darkest recesses of the oldest mountains in north America in eternal youth. These same ferns (or clones thereof) alive today saw the wooly mammoths and mastodons go extinct, the clearing of the eastern forest, and many glaciers come and go. Does that make you feel old?