JUST ONE: Licorice Fern

Like a forest sprite, Licorice fern appears to spring magically from the rocks. Just as often, it climbs up mossy tree trunks, higher than you can see. The jaunty ferns are boon companions on many a walk: always friendly, ever-perky, enhancing every nook and cranny they get into.

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1. Licorice fern edges a rocky outcrop at Deception Pass State Park.

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Even after summer drought dries the fern fronds into a crunchy brown fringe, their tight curls still appeal. And when the rains return the ferns reappear as tiny green triangles of hope pushing into the moist, cool air.

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2. Dried Licorice fern fronds will decompose on this bed of moss. The plant is summer deciduous, i.e. it goes dormant in summer.

3. Less than an inch long, at this stage the budding fronds are easy to miss.

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Licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) is a denizen of wet places in western North America, growing on mossy ground, across fallen logs and rock surfaces and even high into the trees, where it studs branches and trunks with emerald green. The Latin name breaks down as poly = many and podium = little foot, which refers to the way the rhizome looks, but usually it’s hidden from view under the damp, mossy substrate the plant prefers. A rhizome is a creeping, horizontal stem with multiple rootlets (the many little feet) to anchor the plant in place, and fronds springing up at intervals. Glycyrrhiza refers to the slightly sweet, licorice-like taste of the rhizome, which was used by indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest for throat problems and to ease the unpleasantness of other, more bitter medicine. I can attest to the sweetness of the rhizome but personally, I’d rather get my licorice flavor fix by filching seeds from a fennel plant.

This attractive fern did not go unnoticed by the nursery trade; the Royal Horticultural Society in Great Britain lists a cultivar with long frond tips as available at six nurseries. On the west coast the same form can be purchased at a Washington nursery, or you can probably find the “straight” native plant at various growers.

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4. Licorice ferns climb a moss-laden Bigleaf maple tree. On the ground, Sword fern adds more green to this late November scene at Moss Lake Natural Area, located about an hour east of Seattle.
5. Abundant winter rains keep Licorice ferns looking fresh and green. This photo was made in January at a park outside of Seattle.
6. Licorice fern grows happily on a rocky hillside in a park on Fidalgo Island.
7. Another January photo shows Licorice fern growing among clumps of Reindeer moss (Cladina sp.). The tiny round orange objects are reproductive parts of dark-colored dog lichen (Peltigera membranacea).

10. Licorice fern grows on the ground in the right conditions. Here, reindeer lichen helps retain moisture.

11. Licorice fern grows like a green beard from the rocks. Our forests in summer are so dense that they can be fairly dark during the day, though I admit I emphasized the darkness in this photograph.

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When I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2012 and began familiarizing myself with the local flora, Licorice fern was one of many new plants. It reminded me of a fern I knew from the southeast called Resurrection fern (Polypodium polypodioides). Resurrection fern is another small, bright green fern that grows like feathers on tree trunks. Its fronds can dry up and look dead, then come back to life after a good rain. As I understand it Licorice fern doesn’t “resurrect” like that – it puts out new fronds after the summer drought, when rain returns.

As interesting as the objective qualities of Licorice fern are, it’s the subjective beauty of this fern that keeps me coming back. I’ve seen subtle variations in form that delight me: sometimes the tip on a frond is very elongated, giving it a stylish, graceful aspect (this is the form that was bred to be sold as a cultivar). Fronds often cross each other and interweave as they grow, making beautiful patterns. Another feature I like is the look of the sporangium (the round dots on the underside that contain spores) when they’re raised, giving leaves a very organized aspect.

12. A Licorice fern frond with an elegantly elongated tip.

13. Cris-crossed leaflets showing single rows of sporangia and finely toothed margins, both characteristic of the species.

14. There’s something inherently satisfying about the orderliness of ferns.

15. Masses of Licorice fern on Fidalgo Island’s highest point, Mount Erie. Clouds gather around the mount even when the rest of the island is sunny, making it a good environment for ferns.
16. The order Polypodiales appeared about 100 million years ago. Genetic analysis shows that the Polypodiales order is evolutionarily more advanced than other ferns.

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A word about photographing ferns

Photography offers a double pleasure: absorption in the moment as we concentrate on framing a piece of the world that for one reason or another excites us, and later, the pleasure of finding a way to perfect that framed image so that it expresses our feelings. The more that camera and processing skills become second nature, the less we need to think about mechanics, leaving us free to enter into the moment and respond with feeling. Being absorbed in the moment often erases the endless commentary and worries that interject themselves into so much of our days. I don’t pretend to describe the experience of making photographs for others, but that’s how it is for me, on a good day.

I delight in the beauty of this little fern as I encounter it outdoors, and later I admire the attractive patterns all over again, as I process the photographs on the computer monitor. This humble little plant gives me great pleasure. Why should you care about it? No reason at all, but for me, the way it grows in the most unlikely places, the brilliant green of new plants at a time of year when others are looking old, and the happy spring of the fronds lifting towards the light make it admirable. Licorice fern makes a good photographic subject too, so as they say, what’s not to like?

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17. Bringing a frond inside for a closer look.

18. In Spring a cliff bursts with color from Licorice ferns, mosses and the small, lavender, green and pink-leaved succulents called Broad-leaved stonecrop (lower left).

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71 comments

  1. Ferns make surprisingly good photo subjects. When the new fronds start to unfurl are just as interesting as the mature leaves. It’s all in the way you photograph them and you’ve made some lovely examples in this post πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t know much about ferns, but we do have the resurrection fern you mentioned. Especially on the huge, old live oaks, they range along the branches in bunches that seem improbably large. East Texas is fern central, but I’ve not been able to spend enough time there to gather a collection of images like this, or even to identify what I’m seeing. In time.

    Numbers 4, 5, and 6 are my favorites. Number 4 looks like a wonderful old botanical illustration, or perhaps an illustration from a storybook. I’m surprised by the feeling of openness, and the lack of the “greenness” that I so often see in your photos, but I like both.

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    • I used to love seeing that fern on live oaks, and then add the “Spanish moss” and it’s an extraordinarily beautiful scene. I didn’t know that about East Texas. I could easily spend several months exploring the whole gulf region. I can imagine it would be hard to identify them all – up here it’s made easier by the small number of species. It’s nice to think there’s a whole group of plants that I might actually get a handle on. πŸ˜‰ I played with #4, desaturating it selectively, and I added quite a bit of lightened vignette. I was trying to emphasize the fanciful feeling in that forest….but I hadn’t thought about an illustration and I see what you mean. Thank you!

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  3. Weird thought….the life cycle of the fern is short enough that we can photograph it many times over in our life cycle. Wonder what lives long enough to follow our life cycle. Perhaps those trees in the forest? Anyway that’s what your story and images made pop into my head. All beautiful images.

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    • I like that, Howard, I’m glad you told me. Interesting. Wouldn’t it be interesting to photograph a tree as a seedling or even a seed, on the day someone was born, then photograph the tree and the person each year, for decades? πŸ™‚

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  4. Extraordinary – even for your usual high level, dear Lynn.
    Again you find such sweet balance between informative and personal text, between documentary and poetic photography.
    No.4 thrilled me, with its rich details it seems vibrant. Did you do something special to it?
    And No.1 I think, with the foggy background corner!
    As a result of the botanical community, there are so many beautiful lichen and moss to be seen here as well, I never saw them so colourfully staged like in your photos.
    A great pleasure for me to start my day with your Licorice Fern.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like to have a foot in both worlds – the documentary and the interpretive – why feel that it’s either-or? πŸ˜‰ #4 did go through quite a few changes….I did something in Color Efex – I’m not sure what. Then selective desaturating and other tweaks in Lr along with a strong lightened vignette, with the goal of intensifying the autumnal feeling. I’m glad you like it. Glad you noticed the fog in #1 too – I wished there was more of it in the frame but you work with what you have, right? The longer I spend here and the more photos I take of lichens, mosses and ferns, the more I realize can be done with them. It was fun to bring one home too. I may try to plant it here but it’s probably a little too dry around our house. Thank you, Ule. πŸ™‚

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      • Thank you for spotting a bit of light into your processing secrets, dear Lynn!
        I wish you good luck with your plant around the house. You will certainly not forget about watering, watering and watering again πŸ™‚.

        Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a good point, Harrie. Ferns are naturals for black and white, I think. Yesterday I went to a major camera expo (I didn’t buy anything, wow!) and heard a talk by a black and white photographer who uses long exposures, filters, photoshop and Silver Efex. He makes beautiful images. They’re not what I would do but it’s nice to see someone find and follow a unique path, and I may have a few more ideas about things I can do with black and white now. (His name is Thibault Roland)

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      • Did you have a hard time, not buying anything?… Thibault is not my cup of tea, as you would have guessed; although I like the minimal approach and must admit that I only saw very small versions. And I think he is good in what hΓ¨ wants. βœ‹

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        • Agreed. πŸ™‚ It wasn’t too hard not buying anything – so many things are cheaper online, even with the discounts that the companies featured at the expo. The discounts were mainly on expensive items like the newest models of cameras and lenses, which I am not in the market for now. But it was nice checking out the other Olympus cameras and talking with the folks there. πŸ™‚

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  5. Hi Lynn – your appreciation and affection for this plant comes across beautifully. I’m not very fond of licorice or anise flavor, but the ferns are wonderful. #5 is a fun shot, and I think not a scene I’ve ever seen in the eastern quotes, with plumage up and down the trunk. Graceful shots, a real treat, thank you, have a great weekend!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hate licorice, but I found I really like chewing on fennel seeds. πŸ™‚ You might see something like #5 down south on a live oak, but not quite the same. The rainforests in Olympic National Park out here are famous for huge old trees weighed down by enormous loads of mosses, lichens and ferns. It’s pretty easy to find anywhere you have enough rain in the Pacific northwest. I’m glad you enjoyed – as I enjoyed your last post, and I’ll comment soon. πŸ˜‰

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  6. Thanks for the information Lynn. What a wonderfully versatile plant the fern is – and so photogenic too! I particularly like your choices of processing and presentation to reveal the character of each plant.

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  7. I totally agree with the description of these two moments about the “construction” of a photographic image. Beyond, of course, the greatest moment of being and feeling the places, being with senses alert and permeable to our surroundings.
    We are really the real camera! The machine and the computer are just the way to materialize looks and feelings.
    All the photos are magnificent and, as the words, they reflect very well your sensitivity and your love for nature.
    And this ferns are beautiful!

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    • It’s not too hard to get to know them here because there really aren’t so many different species. For starters, you can assume pretty much any fern growing up a tree trunk on the west coast is Licorice fern. πŸ™‚

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  8. Beautiful licorice ferns Lynn…we don’t have much fern life in etown but some come out in the spring I will look next year now it’s showtime πŸ˜€ I also love the 4 foto the feeling is painterly…and I always learn more along the way πŸ€“ have a beautiful day Lynn πŸ’š

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    • The beauty of having fewer fern species is that you can actually figure out which is which. πŸ™‚ Right now they’re all happily asleep under the snow, but oh, those fiddleheads have such wonderful energy when they come up. Thank you, Hedy, enjoy the rest of your day.

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    • πŸ™‚ You made me smile, Jean. And that would make sense. I think I have maybe one more fern for the “Just One” series, but there are plenty of other botanical subjects too. Happy November to you! I bet it’s beautiful where you are – the “ruined” bare bones look of November in upstate NY can be so beautiful.

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    • Like the famous mushroom fairy rings. πŸ™‚ It would be interesting for someone to study the way the rhizome grows, to see if it tends to go a certain way up tree trunks, for example, or around rocks. But then there are the wild masses like in #15…in any case, thank you, Steve!

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  9. I like the way you mean photography. The results you get are really great! And all starts from your way to see what is around you. I like to spend time in the nature, sometimes in the forest, slowly walking and looking around. But I’m not good in photographing it! I need more practice! Your posts are inspiring, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you have a really good eye, and I enjoy your style of photography – it’s just a different style. Photographing in nature brings another set of challenges and the more you do it, the better the results you get. It does start from the way you see, as you said. I’m glad you enjoyed this and your comment is very generous, thank you!

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  10. Well, now I can pick a favorite, although once again you have a great collection and have really done justice to the Licorice Fern. All are excellent, some natural history and some artistic renderings, but number 4 is so beautiful. That should grace a wall in your home…if there is room with all the other fine images you’ve made over the years.

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  11. I love your posts, Lynn. I always learn something- often your topic is on something that I love and photograph but really know little about- like these ferns. And your research reminds me to appreciate plants like this even more.
    I like how you show the details and then the larger picture of what they look like growing around the woods. Love the black and whites, the one dried up and resting (2), the ferns on the lichens are a great contrast of textures and the spore close-ups are very cool. Terrific work!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I couldn’t ask for more, could I? That you appreciated the post this much and learned a little too is great. I’m conscious about mixing close-up views with what I’d call context views – I think it’s important to have both – so thank you for mentioning that. πŸ™‚

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  12. I start with 4, 5 and 8 πŸ™‚ I love nr. 5. I didn’t know that this fern could climb trees! I think I only knew from succulents growing like that. It looks beautiful as well as your pictures from the fern between the lichen! Wonderful! How it grows out of this kind of “bed”. A childhood bed πŸ™‚ It looks as if it is cared for! 7, 9, 10! The young fern is so full of life in spite of its tenderness and the details are appealing. I agree with all you write: it is such a nice plant – maybe really because of the regularity. Interesting, that we like that so much, but I think we already talked about that before. Everything of the fern is beautiful and it is very clear in your nice black and white pictures! And I agree with your joy of photographing and enjoying the results back at home again. A doublejoy πŸ™‚ It is a joy to read your posts! One always can feel your enthusiasm, your love for what you find and see in your text and in your photos.

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    • With abundant rainfall in the Pacific northwest and few periods of prolonged freezing weather, things tend to grow on top of things. There are many layers – trees grow on trees (seriously, they do, all the time) ferns grow on trees, lichens and moss grow on everything, etc. There’s one tree the licorice ferns like best, maybe because its branches often host heavy moss growth. It’s a maple tree, the Bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum). I like your comment about the ferns growing with the reindeer lichen too – they do look snug and well-cared for. I do think there’s something in our brains that gravitates towards patterns. Patterns are regular and/or repetitious so ferns, which are almost as regular as ladders, appeal to us. (Yes, I think we have spoken about that) πŸ™‚ You coined another word in the German manner – doublejoy, thank you. πŸ˜‰ I’m glad the enthusiasm comes through. Thank you for YOUR enthusiasm! πŸ™‚

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