Royal Fern
Osmunda spectabilis - Wildenow
Osmundaceae
(Royal Fern / Flowering Fern) Family

Royal Fern is an upright, sprawling plant with fibrous roots from a rhizome. The rhizome is nearly superficial, the older portion soon decaying. The growing part is covered with old stripe-bases and roots. Its preferred habitat is bogs, swampy areas, and stream banks. Distribution is throughout the Escambia region.

The fronds (leaves) are numerous and erect. They are continuous with the rhizome, at first reddish or glaucous (covered or whitened with a bloom), becoming green. The blades (expanded portion of a leaf) are bright green, rounded on the back, with broad stipule-like basal wings. The blades are lance-ovate, leathery, bipinnate (sub-divided), with ascending leaves that are oblong, sub-entire or finely toothed, blunt and nearly sessile pinnules (side wings) that may also be rounded. Fertile fronds are terminated by a narrowly ovoid to oblong panicles of greenish, finally brownish, racemose branches. The rachises (axis of a compound leaf) bear numerous, rather persistent, black hair-like scales.

The generic name Osmunda is of Saxon origin and was the title of a pagan deity (Thor). Fossils of this plant family have been found in rocks of Permian age (230,000,000 years), a time when the continents were consolidated. Thus, it is not surprising that it occurs on all continents except Antarctica. This plant has witnessed the rise of reptiles, the flourishing and eventual extinction of the dinosaurs, the origin and adaptive radiation of mammals, and the rise to dominance of an obscure genus later known as human.

The royal fern has many traits that seem maladaptive; burdened with characteristics that defy its survival - yet in spite of a variety of reproductive limitations, royal ferns have survived and flourished for hundreds of millions of years!

In Gray's Manual of Botany it is stated that the life cycle of this fern is divided into two independent components, a diploid sporophyte (two sets of chromosomes) and haploid gametophyte (single set of chromosomes). This fern plant with the stem, roots and leaves is the diploid sporophyte.

The royal fern plant is known to thrive for over 100 years. The rhizome is underground just below the soil surface and is very slow growing. Unfortunately, this characteristic prevents it from surviving in environments where sediments bury the stem. The rhizome is clothed in roots which have two functions; (1) to take nutrients from the soil and (2) as a protective armor for the living stem tissue, as ferns have never evolved with bark for stem protection.

Reproduction begins within the spores, where hundreds of cells undergo meiosis (the process of cell devision in animals and plants). The spore cells begin forming late in May or early June, appearing on developing leaves. Each sporangia forms hundreds of small dust-like particles that are dispersed by wind, rain, and animals.

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