Bladder ferns

The cosmopolitan Cystopteris species spread broad bands of small, and sometimes inconspicuous, creeping colonies throughout cool sites in the mountainous areas of the world. They are typically modest in stature and deciduous. The delicate fronds are among the first, along with the woodsias, to unfurl in late winter, frequently in February in the Pacific Northwest. In consequence, their fertility is also precocious and the fronds often wither early in the summer, having accomplished a quick and efficient cycle of growth. When heat desiccates their soft foliage, they tend to replenish fronds throughout the season with smaller replicas. Although these often look tired and rusted, they are still functional. In all sites the stipe bases, like those of several other cold-climate natives (osmundas and select dryopteris, for example), are storage re ceptacles for starch, a nutritional insurance policy against the arctic chill associated with their cold-challenged habitats.

Fronds range in height from 8 to 24 in. (20 to 60 cm) or occasionally more on lustily happy plantings of Cystopteris bulbifera. Succulent and brittle stipes are grooved, enclosing two vascular bundles. Fronds are from once-pinnate to tri-pinnate, all with free veins. Sori are held on the veins, covered by an indusial hood that is the namesake bladder-like in appearance and genus indicative. The early deciduous indusium is soon gone, however, often making identification, especially in comparison with the closely allied woodsias, confusing. Spores, when ripe are black. Ripe Woodsia spores are brown.

Cystopteris comes from the Greek kystis, bladder, in reference to the appearance of the swollen indusium, and the universally applied pteris, fern. Worldwide, there are approximately 20 species, plus an ever-expanding collection of hybrids and backcrosses with varying degrees of distinctions, defining, and redefining differences. They are easily grown in moist to wet, often highly basic, friable soil or rock crevices in temperate gardens where, with their smallish stature, they are especially at ease in lightly shaded rock garden communities. Their deciduous cold winter rest is mandatory.

Propagation by either division or spores (which ripen very early in the summer) is easily accomplished. For Cystopteris bulbifera and its hybrid offspring with their abundant supplies of little green peas of rolling bulblets, reproduction frequently occurs without any attention, or even awareness, whatsoever from the grower. Pleasant surprises happen.

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