Hiking along the Mail Trace Road, Barb spotted a solitary green fern poking out of the drab floor of dried leaves. It had what appeared to be green leaves spread out around the base and a 12" bright green stalk with light green bumps lining the underside of stems like little grapes.
When she touched the stalk there was a tiny cloud that drifted away. The cloud of spores was released with each touch, as shown in this video. We went back home to identify it. What in the past would have been a nearly impossible task of thumbing through books became a one minute exercise with the photo above sent in to Inaturalist.
This grapefern produces a single frond (large, divided leaf) which spreads out at ground level, usually with lacy edges. This often turns from green to a bronze color during the winter. In fall, mature plants grow a single fertile section, which stands on a long stalk above the sterile part. They are named for the round, clustered sporangium (spore cases) extending from the top of the stalk which have some resemblance to a bunch of grapes. When we touched the stalk, the cloud you saw was the spores drifting away to the ground.
From here the fern life cycle gets very technical and hard to describe in simple terms. Rather than confuse you further, I would suggest reading the best description I have found, here from UPenn.edu.
|Resurrection fern during dry period|
|Add water, no stirring required.|
From now on I will give a lot more respect to the ferns I encounter, even if I am still struggling to understand their strange life cycle.
You can read about the Christmas Fern in this month's Missouri Conservationist
at this link.