Ancient Plant Forms

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by Pat Jaquith

We are fortunate to have some versions of early plant life here in the West Valley. Ferns were one of the first vascular plants, but we have examples of even earlier plant development. Botrychiums are non-flowering, seedless vascular plants in the family Ophioglossaceae. Here are three that I have seen nearby.

Botrychium lunaria (Common Moonwort) 6.25.18

Moonworts have fleshy roots and a vascular system. That is a step up from even earlier plants. They are able to absorb water and minerals from the soil and transport those nutrients throughout their tissues. Some of them only occasionally emerge from the ground. They get most of their nourishment from an association with mycorrhizal funguses. The trophophore (similar to a leaf) and the sporophore (branch that holds the spores) share a common stem. The Moonwort above is in its early devlopment stage. Those little knobs will hold spores, the reproductive material that will start the development of more Moonworts.
Ancient people believed these plants had magical powers if gathered by moonlight.

Botrychium lunaria (Common Moonwort) 7.09.17

The little balls that hold the spores have opened, and the spores will soon be transported by wind. The spores have no food reserves, so they will have to make an association with a fungus that will provide nourishment for them to germinate and start to grow. These moonworts were in thick vegetation, so I found a piece of decaying log to use as a background for the photo.
The name Botrychium comes from Greek botrys meaning a bunch of grapes.

Botrychium multifidum aka Sceptridium multifidum (Leathery Grape Fern) 9.27.19

Leathery Grape Ferns grow in moist areas, often along edges of wooded areas. The Trophophore and Sporophore share the same stalk, but the spot of attachment is often below the ground. The spores on this one have dispersed. The Trophophore is hardy; it will be green and fresh looking when snow melts. There doesn’t seem to be any set season for spore formation.

Botrychium virginianum (Rattlesnake Fern or Virginia Grape Fern) 7.22.20

This plant also has roots, a vascular system, a Trophophore (leaf-like structure), a Sporophore (that bears the spores), and it relies on a fungal association for nourishment. The biggest visual difference from the Leathery Grape Fern is that the Trophophore and Sporophore grow out of the stem at about mid-height. It is more finely dissected, making it look lacier and more delicate than the Leathery Grape Fern, and it is usually much taller. This plant grows in moist forest environments where it is well-shaded most of the day. It does not remain over the winter.
Some people saw a resemblance of the Sporophore to a rattlesnake’s tail, thus the origin of the common name “Rattlesnake Fern.”

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3 years ago

This is so interesting. How do you find these ancient treasures in such thick vegetation. It

must be your VERY prepared mind and great power of observation and most importantly your hours of looking and enjoying on the trail. Thanks so much.