An Arkansas Not-So-Oddity


One of the great delights of travel is discovery, and as I wandered the ridge along Arkansas’s Talimena Scenic Drive, I discovered one of the oddest plants I’d ever seen. Unable to decide whether I was looking at fungi or fruit, I wandered a little farther until I found a much larger, even more beautiful example of the plant.

Eventually, I learned I’d found neither a fungus nor a flower, but a fern: specifically, a cutleaf grape fern (Botrychium dissectum). Grape ferns are named for their round, clustered spore cases which do, in fact, resemble a bunch of grapes. The plant is comprised of a single sterile leaf and a single fertile leaf that bears the spores. When both are present, they are joined together close to the ground.

The fact that I’d never seen the plant doesn’t mean it’s rare.  Cutleaf grape fern can be found across the eastern United States and Canada, including limited areas of eastern Texas. Grape ferns prefer rich, moist shady areas with good drainage, so they’d be right at home in Texas’s piney woods.

The fronds emerge from the soil not as fiddleheads but as leaflets. Two forms of the plant can be distinguished by looking at the edges of the leaves. This variety, with its lacey margins, is the form known as dissectum. Had the edges been more smooth, I might have been looking at the form called obliquum.

As for those faux grapes? They’re called sporangia; when they ripen, they split, dispersing the fern’s spores into the air. The spores settle onto the earth and germinate underground, producing a new tuberous plant that contains no chlorophyll but depends on mycorrhizal fungi for nourishment.  The new plant may remain underground for five to eight years before emerging into the light of day, ready to delight the occasional passerby.


Comments always are welcome.  For more information on Botrychium dissectum var. obliquum, click here.
For some history of Rich Mountain, click here.


62 thoughts on “An Arkansas Not-So-Oddity

    1. After I’d looked at several Arkansas wildflower sources and couldn’t find it, I finally asked the right questions: what if it isn’t a wildflower? What could it be? Eventually, I found it. I also figured out that BONAP lists it as Sceptridium dissectum. Their map shows three species, but they’re all in east Texas, which makes sense given the forests there.

  1. Looks like Christmas ornaments!
    Ferns are very old plants – as a kid I used to find them and play with small plastic dinosaurs among them. Even searched the woods for different ones and transplant them in a creek play area for my own prehistoric world (Rarely a kid wallowing in boredom – and easily amused. HAHA)
    These are really pretty ones

    1. Christmas ornaments, or those strings of glass beads that we used to get at carnivals. Pop beads, maybe. I had an impulse to run a finger up one of those stems and see if the little balls would fly off like pop beads, but since I didn’t have a clue what I was looking at, I decided on caution.

      Like you, I grew up with the big garden ferns, and maidenhair ferns along the edges of creeks. These were quite a surprise. I saw several notes that they don’t transplant well: probably because of that connection with the mycorrhizal fungi.

  2. Hi from a little hotel, where I hoped to catch up on ‘things cyber’ before checking out… and huge machines, jackhammers, etc, are working right outside on the street.

    I love these images, and through your eyes/camera, I realize that I should be stopping more often to peer at the zillions of ferns that grow – in dry climate, in rain forest or cloud forests – I have my favorites, but your amazing curiosity about all things in this world is infectious!

    Now if you’ll just fall out of the sky and find a way to ask those workers to go to another job site?

    1. I do have a little time on my hands just now, as it’s pouring rain. No scattered showers, this. It’s real rain, with even a little lightning and thunder thrown in. Any chance rain could send your workers away?

      If I’d read your mention of ferns in a dry climate two years ago, I might have thought you were teasing. But I’ve seen some of the xeric ferns of Texas now, and know that they, too, are part of the family. I’ll confess that ‘xeric fern’ still sounds like an oxymoron to me, but don’t tell it to the ferns.

      Another one I enjoy is the resurrection fern that grows on our live oaks — you surely know that one. You’d think it was nothing but brown leaf litter until the rains come, and it comes alive: bright and green as can be.

      1. hi from a food court. Am on my last stop before heading home. I’ll look up the scientific name of my favorite fern, which in belize is called ‘wire wis’.. it’s a climbing fern with a very thin threadlike ‘vine’ that is tough as wire! The Maya considered it sacred and used it in ceremonies. I remember that it also grew in natchez/ms – but I’d never seen it in the mississippi delta.

        Yes, the resurrection ferns are so great, and they’re here too… they can go from glorious green to drab olive and back again – so resilient.

    1. Thank you, rethy. Its identity was a puzzle to me for some time, so I was pleased when I finally was able to put a name to it. I was happy to get decent photos, too. I’m not accustomed to photographing in shade, or in forests, and I was learning as I went along.

    1. You made me curious, so I went looking and found there are several species that grow in your part of the world. One of my favorites is Botrychium ascendens, or the upswept moonwort. A number of the species are called moonworts. I don’t know why, but the name makes me smile. You can see how many species there are on this map.

      Look at that last one: Botrychium yaaxudakeit, or Yakutat moonwort. Thanks to your blog, I was pretty sure that had to be a Pacific Northwest species, and sure enough, it shows up in Alaska, Yukon, British Columbia, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, and eastern California.

      Yakutat’s also a town in Alaska, and the name seems to be from the Tlingit. Yaakwdáat (“the place where canoes rest”) originally derives from an Eyak name, diyaʼqudaʼt, and was influenced by the Tlingit word yaakw (“canoe, boat”). When I read that, I couldn’t help thinking about Emmett.

  3. I eat my peas with honey;
    I’ve done it all my life.
    It makes the peas taste funny,
    But it keeps them on the knife.

    What interesting photos! I’ve never seen a fern like this, very cool. I agree with Philosopher Mouse, they do look sort of Christmas-y and I’d expect them to jingle in the wind. I guess the cicadas can sing along, they can all come up together from the velvet underground for the concerts.

    1. I haven’t heard that poem in ages. Like every kid in the world (or at least the ones who learned the poem) I had to try the honey-and-knife trick on my peas, too. A lot of people think it’s an Ogden Nash poem, but apparently not; it’s still listed as anonymous. Anonymous certainly came up with a lot of good material.

      Now that you mention Christmas and bells, I can see them as straps of sleigh bells. Wasn’t that a song, once? “Cicadas sing, are you listening? In the woods, ferns are glistening. It’s a beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight, walking in a wooded wonderland…”

    1. And just to add to the delight, in fall the foliage turns a deep, coppery-bronze. It’s really beautiful, and from what I read it will persist through the winter. Who knew that ferns could be so varied, or so interesting?

    1. I certainly was surprised by it. I even wondered if it might have been afflicted wtih galls, but no: all those little round balls weren’t a bug, but a feature!

    1. I’m just starting to wrap my mind around the complexities of their lives. It’s only been in the past six months or so that I’ve begun to understand mycorrhizal fungi. It’s all so very interesting, and their variety is astonishing.

    1. In a way, it’s polka-dotted, like your favorite new bag! I still get a little confused with the terminology that’s applied to these plants, but I don’t have any trouble appreciating them. And a wonderful new find like this? Who cares if there’s fog in the mountains when this appears?

  4. One of nature’s lurkers. Those lurkers, like the cicadas, fascinate me. All that living going on in the shadows, out of sight. Then one day, in their own good time, they seem to just appear in sudden glory, to fascinate and astonish, but they’ve been there all along, quiet, unobtrusive, hidden in the background, lurking.

    1. Exactly so. And it really is something to ponder, that this fern can spend years underground: some articles said five years or more, one said eight. It makes finding one feel even more special.

      I’ve been thinking about the various botanists who roamed the country in the 1800s. They, too, were just passing through, recording what they found, but what fantastic travelers and “sight-seers” they were. Every now and then I pick up one of their journals, and I’m beginning to get a feel for what they experienced — not to mention the competition among them to find the mostest and the bestest stuff to send back east!

  5. Linda this was a fantastic find and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing and reading about this unusual fern. I have never seen anything so pretty. It looks like a work of art. Your photo truly enhances its beauty. And it is good to know that it ranges into east Texas. Hope you had a fabulous trip. I am assuming you are home now.

    1. Isn’t it an amazing little plant? Do you remember when I posted about the glass artist who made replicas of flowers for Harvard? When I saw this one, I thought it would be beautiful done in glass.
      It’s only found in a very few Texas counties, but it’s nice to know it’s there. I know almost nothing about the piney woods, or the flowers and other plants that grow there — maybe some day I’ll go east instead of west.

      I am home, and have been for some time. These Arkansas posts have been bubbling away on the back burner for a while — I finally got all the ingredients in the pot so I could serve them up.

    1. Ferns, fungi, lichens, and algae are such mysterious worlds. I learned a good bit about ferns that I didn’t know while I was trying to sort out this one’s life cycle, but of course the first step had to be figuring out that the darned thing was a fern!

    1. I really enjoyed that linked article. It’s fun to find a genus that we share, and it was amazing how similar the plants look. I was interested to see the photo showing the capsules in the process of splitting to release their spores. These aren’t quite at that stage, but I’m just as happy to have found them intact.

      I laughed at the statement in the article that “neither genus is typically fern-like in its appearance.” No kidding! And it looks like you have both forms, too. I noted this: “Botrychium australe is very similar to B. biforme in overall shape and size but is distinguished by its slightly less divided frond… Both species have green and bronze colour forms.” Many of the photos I found from later in the year show the bronzing of the leaves; they’re wonderfully attractive.

      As for Grape Nuts — guess who loves those on top of yogurt, or with fruit and pecans or walnuts for breakfast? Yes, that would be me. They were my dad’s favorite, and I re-adopted them some years ago as a lower-calorie, sugar free alternative to granola.

        1. I laughed and laughed when I followed some links and eventually landed on the page for Sanitarium. In this country (or at least where I grew up) a “sanitarium” was where the crazy or strange people lived, and it wasn’t necessarily devoted to health and well-being, whatever the stated intent. I think your Weetbix must be our shredded wheat, which also comes in big biscuits and plump little pillows. I never liked ours, because it got soggy too fast.

            1. Our churches, synagogues, mosques, non-profits and charities don’t pay taxes either, but there are restrictions, and “not for profit” is taken seriously (although I’m sure there are a goodly number of creative accountants helping to maintain their clients’ non-profit status). Even the number of profit-making ventures our native plant society chapter can engage in each year is limited to two. More than that, and we’re paying taxes.

  6. I searched it and it belongs to the Ophioglossaceae family, the adder’s-tongue family, which is a family of ferns. The name ‘Ophioglossum’ comes from the Greek, and means “snake-tongue” (referring to how they look as they sprout from the ground). Much more interesting are those grapes.

    1. That family name is such a tongue-twister it might take an adder with a very agile tongue to get it out properly! I do like the way the leaflet spreads laterally. It’s quite different from the fiddleheads I grew up with.

      It surprised me to find there’s a species of Botrychium that’s endemic to New Zealand. The more I thought about how old these ferns are — and how the spore bearing plants preceded the gymnosperms — the more intrigued I became. I know almost nothing about Pangea, but I couldn’t help wondering if some of these oddities, like the same family of ferns in New Zealand and New England, didn’t come about because of that ‘continental drift.’ It’s an idle thought, but intriguing.

      1. I think of ‘continental drift’ often because of highly similar flora of the Caribbean compared to Asian. It’s just doesn’t seem like a remote possibility, at least in my mind, that most Asian flora was introduced in the Caribbean by humans (or vice versa). Puerto Rican backyard is practically the same as that of India or South Pacific Islands. The idea of that big plot of land (Pangea) is the argument for extinction theories, because less isolation made for more competition. It’s really fascinating.

    1. When I first saw it, I thought of grain, too. Even after I figured out it wasn’t grain, it took me a good while to finally pin it down. In some ways, it’s such a simple fern that I’ve been able to figure out “how it works” — ferns, and fungi always have been a bit of a mystery to me.

    1. It was a brand new one for me. There are some species in your part of the world. Here’s one of the Australian species. It’s called the parsley fern, no doubt because of the leaves. It’s extinct in Tasmania, but apparently common enough in Australia.

      Who knows? They might have examples of it in the botanical gardens there, and with any luck at all, one day you’ll be through your health problems and able to visit again. I do hope so. I wonder if your gardens have plant lists. Some of ours do.

  7. These things look like beads … or pearls. How cool that they turn into such lovely lacy fronds! Linda, you’re so lucky to be able to travel around and find such interesting things to photograph. One of these days, I’d like to be able to do a bit of that myself. Anyway, thank you for piquing my interest and helping educate me, too!

    1. Truth to tell, even though I love traveling in other states and discovering what they have to offer, most of my “travel” is limited to day trips closer to home. Sometimes, I discover an oddity like this plant in another state, only to learn that it lives right here in Texas. It just doesn’t live in my area of Texas — one of the consequences of having such a large state.

      I know you like quotations. Here’s one of my favorites, from Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz:
      “I spent the summer traveling; I got halfway across my back yard.”

        1. No snakes involved. Some say it got its name because it happens to grow where there are snakes, but nearly everything grows where there’s a snake or two, so not to worry!

  8. Nice find and shots of this, Linda. We do have them here in New England as well, but I haven’t recognized them until now. I’ll be on the lookout. Nice bit of nature writing as well.

    1. I thought of you when I saw that this is native to Massachusetts. This is the time to be on the lookout for it, because it comes up in late summer rather than spring. The pretty sterile leaves will hold even into winter, turning coppery or bronze after frost.

      I found this on my first trip to Arkansas, which was in the fall. It’s taken me this long to identify it — not because it would have been difficult, but because of the usual limitations of “so many plants, so little time.”

      There’s a look-alike called the rattlesnake fern. I learned just today that both can be found within about four hours driving distance from here — much closer than Arkansas.

    1. I gave up tasting things in the woods after a little experience with what appeared to be a wild strawberry. I still don’t know what it was, but it wasn’t nearly as delicious as a strawberry, and the effects were distinctly unpleasant. The thought of parsley makes sense. In fact, at least one species of this fern is known as the “parsley fern.” It’s especially interesting that the parsley fern grows in Australia — this genus is very widely distributed.

      I hope you’ve found some nice ways to enjoy the weekend. We’re in the midst of lovely rain, and no one’s complaining.

    1. I went a-looking, and discovered that you do have a species in this genus. It’s called Botrychium lunaria or moonwort.

      And look at this!

      “This fern attracted much superstition in past times and was popular with alchemist seeking to turn lead into gold. Nicholas Culpeper, the renowned 17th Century herbalist, also describes its magical qualities:

      “(Moonwort) will open locks, and unshoe such horses as tread upon it… …I have heard commanders say, that on White Down in Devonshire, near Tiverton, there were found thirty horse shoes, pulled off from the feet of the Earl of Essex’s horses, being there drawn up in a body, many of them being but newly shod, and no reason known, which caused much admiration: the herb described usually grows upon heaths.”

      Never mind the horseshoes. Let’s see about that gold!

    1. These weren’t hidden at all. I’d stopped at an overlook to take in the view, and there they were, just as the edge of the trees. I couldn’t imagine what they were, but I knew they deserved a photo. Now I’m hoping to find their close relative, the rattlesnake fern. I’m going to have to go to east Texas to do it, I suppose, but what better reason for a trip?

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