Local author publishes guide to identifying ferns

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DUMMERSTON — Ferns are unfurling by the millions across Vermont and Lynn Levine wants people to be able to tell them apart. Do you know the difference between a cinnamon fern and an ostrich fern? Or a sensitive fern and a royal fern?

The East Dummerston forester and author of a popular animal tracking and scat guide has just published a new nature guide, "Identifying Ferns the Easy Way."

The pocket-sized guide includes detailed drawings and helps the amateur naturalist to easily identify the most common ferns in the Northeast. Levine said her life in the woods as a consulting forester got her

interested in ferns, and her second career as a naturalist made her realize there wasn't a good, simple-to-use-and-understand fern guide for the beginner.

"The language of ferns is a dense language," she said.

Instead of the botanist terms of lamina, pinna, pinnule,

pinnulet or stipe, Levine has substituted blade, leaflet, subleaflet, sub-subleaflet and stalk.

Levine sent the book to four fern specialists before publication. "They all had something to say," she said.

"What I'm really good at is making things simple," Levine said. "I can teach people how to identify ferns in 15 minutes."

Ferns are more than 200 million years old, and in early years, grew as tall as trees. "They all fell down and got buried in the mud and the ferns became coal," Levine said. "They grew to be giants."

Worldwide, there are 12,000 different species of ferns, she said.

"The ones in the book are the ones you'll find in the woods," she said.

The guide includes directions for identifying the 28 most common of the 56 ferns found in Vermont. The popular ostrich fern, in its early fiddlehead form, is currently in great demand on dinner tables. The immature version of the ostrich fern is the only edible fiddlehead, Levine said. She emphasized that the fiddlehead has to be cooked before being eaten.

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"We have the biggest variety in New England," she said, "because of our bedrock."

During a sunny walk in a rural area of Brattleboro, ferns were in various states of unfurling to maturity, and even ostrich ferns were quickly exploding out of their fiddlehead forms. Levine said her favorite Vermont fern is the maidenhair fern, an airy, delicate fern that likes rich, shaded soil and is often found on limestone bedrock.

"Where maidenhair fern grows, the trees tend to grow taller," the guide reads.

Levine doesn't want to get in the way of the student actually learning, so she doesn't always jump in with the answer, letting the student do his or her own thinking.

Ferns are found all over the world. They reproduce by spore, not seed, and spores can travel across an ocean. Four spores, she said, can fit on the width of a human hair.

New England has many of the same ferns as Asia, thanks to the ability of fern spores to travel by the wind. Ferns usually grow in the most fertile spot of the forest, she said, and during the spring, you can also find the spring ephemerals such as ginger, leeks and Dutchmen's breeches nearby, especially in calcium rich soil. And, said the forester, "That's where the trees grow the best."

Levine said she thought for over a year before she decided how to organize the guide, which first asks the naturalists the overall shape of the fern — whether they are no-cut, once-cut, twice-cut, thrice-cut, or have three parts. Some are unique, like the crown-shaped maidenhair fern. Most ferns are plume-shaped, with leaflets and subleaflets radiating from the rachis or stem of the fern. Most Vermont ferns are twice-cut or thrice cut, although some common and noticeable ferns such as Christmas ferns and Rock Polypody are once-cut ferns. The laciest ferns are the thrice cut — such as the hay-scented fern, the lady fern and the spinulose wood fern.

The guide includes illustrations and silhouettes by Briony Morrow-Cribbs, also of Dummerston, that make it easy to quickly recognize the distinctions between the Christmas fern and the Polypody, or the more delicate and thrice-cut hay-scented fern and the lady fern.

Levine said Morrow-Cribbs, who recently moved to Dummerston, illustrated "The Wicked Plants" and had the interest and expertise. The two women exchanged hundreds of emails to make the guide work.

"I had the ideas and came up with the form and she made it better," Levine said.

Levine is an enthusiastic naturalist, and leads nature walks in addition to acting as a consulting forester. The guide includes notes Levine has collected as part of her own field work and from classes she has taken from fern experts. For example, cinnamon fern gets its name not because it tastes like cinnamon, but because of the color of its fertile fronds. And there's a warning that interrupted fern, which is often confused with ostrich fern, is not edible. Bracken fern is poisonous to livestock. And hay-scented fern — which is often used for flower arrangements — smells like hay when dried.

"I want people to go in the woods and enjoy it," she said.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.


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