Cloak ferns

Notholaena (Greek notho, false, and chlaena, cloak, referring to the hidden sori) species are intriguing xerics with hairs, scales, and/or frequently a waxy undercoat as requisite defenses against the angst of living in drylands. They are well traveled botanically. At present there are 20 to 25 species, a number recently reduced significantly. As the genus tends to be intermediate between Cheilanthes and Pellaea, many species have been transferred to those genera. Populations are found in rocky sites in the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Australia, although some botanists would restrict their definition and include only those that are waxy, thus limiting their scope to material exclusively from the Americas.

Cloak ferns are fascinating evergreens in situ and, on those rare instances when successfully coaxed into cultivation, are beauties to behold. Roots need to be tended by rocks to keep them cool and to collect life-sustaining moisture condensation. Good drainage and air circulation are required as is protection from winter wet. Sori are submarginal on veins often partially concealed by leaf margins or the dense presence of hairs, scales, or waxy undercoats.

Sadly these ferns do not linger in cultivation, but seriously dedicated growers can maintain them (or at least try to) in portable containers with lots of gritty soil and bright light. The site should be similar to the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico with cool, clear nights, warm sunny days, not much rain in winter, and steady heat and some rain in summer.

Notholaena grayi (after Gray) is an upright species from limestone or igneous rock talus slopes and crags of the U.S. Southwest and adjacent Mexico. Fronds are 12 to 18 in. (30 to 45 cm) tall, pinnate-pinnatifid to bipinnate-pinnatifid, and covered with a protective white waxy shield on the upper frond surface and more especially on the frond's underside. This species is consequently an ornamental jewel for the privileged and skilled specialist who can maintain it in the preferred xeric combination of well-drained, winter-wet-free, crumbly soil in Zones 9 and 10. Apogamous.

Notholaena lanuginosa (soft haired), synonyms Cheilan-thes vellea and Cosentinia vellea, is a small, once-pinnate, upright species that I first saw in the most forbidding looking, rubbled slopes in the Canary Islands (although it is native as far away as the Himalayas). The 8- to 10-in. (20- to 25-cm) fronds with short, brown hairy stipes have 20 or more pairs of pinnae with undersides heavily protected by matted hairs. Outstanding and very skilled xeric specialist Clive Brotherton grows this in custom soil in his containerized central England collection. Elsewhere devoted enthusiasts will find that it germinates eagerly from spores that practically jump from the plant to the container, promptly producing quantities of plants for experimentation in different soils and exposures. In whatever site, from protected Zone 8 to exposed 9 and 10, it will require good bright light and excellent drainage and air circulation.

Notholaena lemmonii (after John G. Lemmon, 1832-1908), from southern Arizona and northern Mexico, grows to 1 ft. (30 cm) with short stipes and bipinnate blades. The pinnae, which look in pairs like butterflies, are decorated on the undersides with a white or yellow waxlike coating. Plants need the traditional good drainage and protection from winter wet and are garden potentials for Zones 9 and 10.

Notholaena marantae (after sixteenth-century Venetian botanist Bartolomea Maranti), synonyms Cheilanthes maran-tae and Gymnopteris marantae, is a lanceolate, bipinnate, 8-in. (20 cm) species with tall, dark stipes coated in scales and hairs. The 10 to 15 pairs of pinnae are decorated on their lower surface with an abundance of rich reddish scales. This species is widespread in Europe, the Middle East, China, and the Himalayas. German specialists are growing it in fast-draining rock garden pockets in Zones 6 to 9.

Notholaena standleyi (after Paul Standley, 1884-1963, who botanized in Central and North America) has glossy stipes of one-half to three-quarters of the 6-in. (15-cm) frond length. The blades are pentagonal with the basal pinna pair flaring like wings accentuated with lengthy innermost pinnules. Upper pinnae are pinnatifid. Deep butter-yellow to creamy white, waxy powder (farina) spreads across the undersides of the frond and etches the margins. For nature lovers the slowly creeping colonies are remarkable and rare discoveries nestled among rocks in the inhospitable dry gulches of the U.S. Southwest. These conditions must be mimicked in cultivation with the potential for success confined to Zones 8 to 10.

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