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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