Adders tongue ferns

These weird, primitive novelties range from wee 3- to 6-in. (7.5- to 15-cm) temperate species, which are just as likely to be stepped on as recognized, to giant cascades of tropical epiphytes. The genus name comes from the Greek ophis, snake, and glossa, tongue, describing the fern's architecture, which for most species has a sterile, spoon-shaped blade surrounding a narrow upright fertile stalk suggesting a snake's tongue. These species have the highest numbers of chromosomes of any known vascular plant, a fact that trivia buffs might like to casually drop into ferny conversations.

The deciduous fronds grow from succulent rhizomes with roots that bud, and travel about producing new plants at random intervals. Temperate species prefer moist habitats, especially grassy sites, and have a special penchant for sprouting in cemeteries in the North American Gulf states. These are "belly plants" that are best viewed while on hands and knees ("botanists in a special kind of prayer meeting," Mickel 1994). Most do not accept domestication, but may spring up as surprises in untended wild flower lawns. Alan Ogden of England has such a lawn and notes that his plants rearrange their spontaneous appearances by as much as several feet each year, "more like a mole than an adder" (pers. comm.).

Ophioglossum pendulum is commonly known as ribbon fern. Those who garden nearby this plant's native forests in the South Pacific, Australia, or elsewhere in tropical Asia, where it clings to massive branches of old rain forest trees, may have an opportunity as I have had to grow this fern. Grow it with native leaf mold on the branch of a big, shady, broadleaf evergreen tree and keep it moist especially during any dry season. It is slow to adapt in garden conditions, yet within a year or two and with care and good luck, it will gain strength and grow on as heartily as it does in absolute wilderness. To grow

Onychium japonicum frond.

Long ribbons of handsome fronds drape from a high-up planting of Ophioglossum pendulum. Photo by George Schenk.

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Less-than-showy but challenging to establish, Ophioglossum vulgatum mingles among grassy plants in the Wardlaw garden.

Immature green fertility on the tips of young Osrmmda fronds.

a ribbon fern in a greenhouse or conservatory, poke its rib-bony leaves down through the interspaces in a wire basket and then pack at least several inches (centimeters) of sphagnum moss around the fern's basal wad of roots and leaf mold. Hang it high. When ribbon fern gets going, it may well attain its wilderness length of 6 ft. (1.8 m) or even more. A well-grown plant of this species is easily one of the most dramatic of ferns. (Description by George Schenk.)

Ophioglossum pusillum (very small), northern adder's-tongue fern, and O. vulgatum (common), southern adder's-tongue fern, are such closely allied curiosities that some authorities consider O. pusillum to be a variety of O. vulgatum. Both are deciduous with small sterile sheathes that frame an upright taller fertile spike. Politely speaking they are inconspicuous, except for the avid fern hunter who knows what to look for, as well as when and where to look. On field trips this is often accompanied with a hint of competition and success makes for an interesting "find." The North American O. pusillum is hardy to Zone 2, while the internationally distributed O. vulgatum is hardy to Zone 6.

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