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Flora Fact : Deceptively Delicate

Water-loving maidenhair ferns grace creek banks and ponds.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

David Mahler’s interest in Southern maidenhair and other native Texas ferns started years ago with a field guide he kept in hand while working as a camp counselor.

“Ferns have such wonderful shapes, and they’re so interesting,” says Mahler, an Austin ecologist and landscape designer who often incorporates the delicate, yet hardy plants into ornamental ponds and habitat restorations. For instance, mounds of Southern maidenhair fronds spill from limestone crevices into a faux Hill Country stream that he designed at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

In the wild, Southern maidenhair — which occurs throughout the western half of Texas — grows in moist, shady spots along creek banks and limestone ledges. Another common name for the species — Venus-hair fern — originated from its botanical name and refers to the plant’s lacy, fan-shaped leaflets. In Latin, Veneris refers to the goddess Venus while capillus means hair.

Just so you know, not every so-called fern is a fern. True ferns reproduce by releasing dust-like spores. Nonnative asparagus fern, a misnomer listed as an invasive species in Florida, produces flowers and seeds. As for those microscopic spores, maidenhair and other ferns produce millions of them on the underside of leaves. Only a few survive. By means of cell division, those develop into tiny, heart-shaped plants called gametophytes that have simple root systems.

The ho-hum process gets steamy, so to speak, when a gametophyte grows male and female organs. The appropriate parts turn out spermatozoids and an egg. Via a water drop, the egg is fertilized and — voila! — another fern takes root in a habitat. Like many plants, Southern maidenhair also spreads through rhizomes (underground stems that send out more stems and roots).

“That’s mainly how I grow maidenhair and four other common ferns in my backyard nursery for my projects,” Mahler says. “Now if I could only grow the other 130 Texas native species!”

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