Written and drawn by Sarah Morejohn
This article was written with reference to the books: Air Plants, Epiphytes and Aerial Gardens, by David H. Benzing, and Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, edited by Jim Pojar and Andy McKinnon.
Walking, shoulders and hips swing alternately, rhythmically. Pine needles and leaves rust colored and drab crunch beneath my feet like small bird ribs. Damp and cold, the mist collects on my face and lips. It is early Sunday in winter and I am walking to see or to get lost. It is seeming unlikely. I go down the same trails that are outside of Eugene, Oregon almost every weekend, to Mt. Pisgah, or Spencer's Butte. On completely free Sundays, a car ride to Dexter to Mt. June.
As I walk, hopefully, something is lost little by little and rediscovered. Hopefully, my eyes visit something that they haven't before.
If only I could pull particles out of leaves and rocks, disperse them and find atoms, I'd be quite content.
Following the trail, the Ridge Line Trail outside of Eugene going west, I pass Douglas firs, Red alders, Big Leaf maple, and Sword and Maidenhair ferns. Most conifers I can't get my arms around. Expanses of mosses longer than the span of my arms are growing on deciduous branches and dripping with dew. The Sword ferns are just as large and drippy as well. The forest is messy and fecund, even in winter. A colony of gloppy mushrooms and pine cones become diminutive towns growing under the foot of a tree.
Plants and trees grow big here. The seasons are mild with 50 inches or so of rain a year. Stands of trees are a kaleidoscope of lush greens, blues, and dark browns year round. When I find a rotting cedar I give it a double-take believing it has bled.
As I walk I hit a slight incline, a few dogs and their owners, and a leaf blower sounds in the distance. This is not wildest adventure I could think of this weekend but it will be enough.
Descending, I start coming upon trees that are fuzzy with small ferns, less then 5 inches long, yet still longer then my hand. They are high in the the branches of a gigantic Big Leaf maple folded in moss, waving down to me as a breeze passes through. I come across other smaller maples, and the ferns upon them aren't so developed. Some are hanging low. Approaching them for a closer look, I'm also going in for a kiss; I can make out the individual hairs of the mosses, I can see a bulbous woody base of a fern. Fuzzy golden circles march in a line down an individual pinnule; I can see the veins, the darkness of them.
These ferns are epiphytes, apart of the Polypodium family and can be found commonly throughout the northwest. Although they are everywhere in forests in the northwest, one can't find them in plant books. As humble plants they seem worth knowing about because of the unique place they reside and communities they create.
Plants that colonize branches belong to the genus of epiphytes. An epiphyte is defined as something that perches upon another plant (epi= upon, phyte= plant). Plants that the epiphyte perches upon is defined as phorophyte (phoro= host, phyte= plant). There are several types of epiphytes that range from the more humble ferns, single cell algae, lichens and mosses, to exotic orchids. Most plants in this genus have the same attributes as other plants, live and reproduce in similar ways. Most, like ferns and orchids, are vascular; they use the same capillary systems to move nutrients, and have the same overall structure. Yet epiphytes have a miniature body, evolved to be a compact system. Often an epiphtye's miniature body obscures structure or any specialization it might have.
These epiphytic ferns have similar features to that of the Sword fern. Golden or rust colored sori dot the underside of each species' pinnule in groups of 1 or 2. Like most vascular plants they both employ stomas and trichomes to collect nutrients, water, and control the porosity of the plant. However the epiphytic fern is considerably compact compared to the Sword fern. The rhizome (A scaly branch just before the fronds. It holds genetic information.) is less then 3 inches fully grown and produces only one frond. Its sori are just larger then a pin head. The Sword fern can grow to over a meter tall, and produces multiple stout fronds with large capable looking sori. Comparably the sword fern is the gargantuan well fed cousin.
I find it odd to think how epiphytes evolved. They are related to an ancient spore producing plant that grew near bodies of water, but eventually decided trees are best, and that the land branches provide are to be capitalized for survival. It seems to be the rule of nature: whatever is not being utilized or occupied will be. The roots of a true epiphyte never touch the ground. The roots of orchids look like they have forgotten about soft soils. They are snubbed and swollen like odd fingers holding onto whatever they can grip.
On my walk the trees are a cascade of ferns, from their branches to their trunks, living in giant communities with one another. A community starts with fern spores that float and land on a bed of moss on a branch. They take up residence and grow, creating more of themselves by growing long linking rhizome branches. They will also connect with other already developed ferns nearby. Their roots over time converge and spread all over a tree sharing nutrients and water sources, which becomes a fully efficient community that is discerningly complex.
The fern leaves high in the tree wave to me, either hi or goodbye; either yes or no. The binary makes me think of the plants freakish, never touching dirt, not mingling or competing with the other plants, being high and risen from everything. It makes me compare them in my mind to high risers having an exclusive rooftop party. Hopefully they will invite me to the next one.