Unraveling the Mystery of Growing Ferns from Spore

Fern reproduction remains a bit of a mystery to me.  A mystery that borders on the ‘magical’ when tiny ferns appear growing out of the mosses along the paths of our back garden.  This two-step sexual reproduction appeared on Earth untold millions of years ago, allowing the first plants to recombine their genetic materials to produce new generations of some algae, mosses, liverworts, and finally ferns, the earliest vascular plants.

Most of our familiar plants produce seeds after fertilization of their flowers or cones with pollen.  The pollen may be carried from one plant to another by a pollinating insect or other animal, or by the wind.  Ferns, and other simple plants, don’t produce seeds.  The microscopic activities of their spores are all but invisible to our eye.  So, I am curious, and am studying others’ successes with fern propagation so I might learn to propagate my favorite ferns, too.

I have been studying the Hardy Fern Foundations Spring 1998 Special Publication on Fern Propagation where a dozen experienced growers describe their methods for propagating ferns.  Their essays explain reproduction from spore, and they also describe their own methods for collecting and sowing spore to successfully raise a crop of ferns.

A baby fern is called a ‘sporeling’ because it is the generation that can eventually produce spores.

Ferns have successfully propagated themselves in nature, with no human assistance, for millennia.  So it shouldn’t be too complicated, right?  These very knowledgeable writers describe strategies that lead to success, and also explain how inattention to detail can lead to failure.

My first successes in growing baby ferns from spore were entirely accidental.  Spore from potted ferns on my deck fell onto potting soil that I sealed up in a zip-lock bag for the winter while I waited for some seeds I’d sown in that shallow container of potting soil to germinate.  At first, I thought a nice crop of moss was growing on the soil.  As I kept checking the container every few weeks this spring, I was amazed and delighted to recognize tiny ferns growing from the green structures on the soil I had thought would become mosses.

Baby ferns grow from potting soil. The flat green structures are the gametophytes.

The structures I observed, gametophytes, are the ‘in-between’ generation between one fern and its offspring.  When a spore begins to grow, its first visible sign of activity may be a thin, green thread of cells known as a prothallus.  As cell division continues, it eventually thickens into a tiny structure, about the size of a pinkly fingernail or smaller, which will then produce the necessary male and female reproductive cells: sperm and egg.  

All of this must occur in a damp, shaded environment.  While the female cell remains attached to the gametophyte, the male cell will ‘swim’ to locate a female cell on another gametophyte.  Each gametophyte will usually produce several male and female cells, depending on the fern’s genus.  But once a female cell on a gametophyte has been fertilized, its growth tends to crowd out the potential of any other female cell on that structure to develop.

Each tiny, dust-like grain of spore is a single cell.  Each tiny sporangia on a fertile fern frond contains 64 spores by the time it has ripened.  Sporangia clump together into a ‘sori,’ or the dot visible to the eye on a fertile frond.  If you do even a bit of math, you realize that many thousands of tiny spores ripen together on each fertile frond.

The gardener’s task is to learn to recognize when the sori ripen and collect a bit of fertile frond before the spore are released into the wild.  In most species, but not all, the sori darken from green to brown before they open.  Each genus has a slightly different timetable each year, so part of this art is to know when to collect a fertile frond to begin the propagation process.

Some gardeners suggest you collect fertile fronds in paper lunch bags.  Others tell you to lay a frond on a piece of typing paper to dry.  The method I’ve adopted, as described in the HFF booklet, suggests putting a clipping of a few pinnules from a ripe fertile frond into an envelope.  It is easy enough to note the type of fern collected and the date on the envelope, and then seal it up until the frond has dried and dropped its spore.  Sowing the released spore from the envelope is easy, too.  I’ve been resealing the envelopes to allow more spore to collect for a later sowing, or even to share.  Depending on the genus, spore may remain viable for a few days or a few years.

The two constant threads in all of the gardeners’ descriptions of their methods involves sowing onto sterile media and keeping that media wet throughout the growth period.  Some gardeners make up a mix, and then cook it in the oven or microwave to sterilize it.  It may be as simple as bagged African Violet potting mix or as complicated as ‘Gorilla Gravel,’ made from cat litter, vermiculite, and several other ingredients. 

One gardener sowed directly onto clean pumice stones, which he kept in a shaded area of his greenhouse.  One even sowed the spore into enriched water kept in covered petri dishes.  The media needs to be sterile so that harmful fungi, bacteria, or algae spores don’t grow to ruin the culture of fern spores.

I liked Dr. Peter Podaras’s procedure in which he sowed spore directly onto either floral Oasis foam or rockwool.   Since rockwool is sold for propagation of seeds and cuttings, I am going to assume it is already sterile enough for spores.  I cut blocks of rockwool to fit the bottom of gallon sized zip-lock bags. 

Rockwool is sold for propagating seeds and cuttings. It is inorganic and should be sterile enough for spores

Dr. Podaras recommends saturating the inorganic media with a weak solution of fertilizer and a horticultural fungicide.  I used what I had on hand and mixed up a half-strength solution of orchid fertilizer in bottled spring water.  He instructs one to saturate the media, then sow the spores.  Since another writer sowed directly into a similar water solution in a petri dish, I allowed for a bit of extra moisture in the bottom of the bag to support any spores that didn’t hit the rockwool directly when I shook them from the envelope. 

Here, the rock wool is saturated with spring water enriched with orchid fertilizer and I’ve sprinkled spores into the bag. It is ready to seal it up and put it in a bright, shady spot while waiting for the spores to begin to grow.

Finally, I sealed up the bags, labeled with the type of spore sown in each and the date I sowed it.  Most writers suggested placing the container of spores under fluorescent lights for 14-16 hours a day while waiting for the tiny filaments of new prothallus growth to appear.

I have one bag of rockwool and spores in my office under a light, but I set the other bags out in a shaded and protected spot on the deck where they should receive sufficient light and heat to begin growth.  I have about a dozen bags of spores started now, each with a different type of fern.  The writers warn that the process from sowing spores to transplanting tiny ferns into their own pots can take several months to a year or more.  I expect to bring those bags on the deck indoors and put them under lights once the weather turns cold.

The sporelings growing in this pot come from spores dropped from a nearby fern. The same moist, shady conditions that allow moss to grow also allow ferns to develop from spores.

Nothing more is required until the heart-shaped gametophytes appear on the rock wool.   When they have grown thick enough to begin to cover the rockwool, it will be time to water them again with the same fertilizer solution to facilitate the movement of the male cells in their search for female cells to fertilize.  Since they swim in water, they require a wet environment and watering the whole mass will speed along the process.  I assume that subsequent waterings will assist with the continued production of new ferns as each gametophyte develops on its own schedule.

The tiny new ferns are known as ‘sporelings,’ since they are the generation that will mature to produce a new crop of spores.  Once the fronds of these baby ferns are a few inches high, and there are two or three fronds visible, it is time to gently lift them, with their tiny roots, and plant them into potting soil in small pots where they may continue to grow.  Even then, the sporelings continue to require high humidity and consistently moist soil as they continue to grow.

The fern bottom center in this fern table is a volunteer Athyrium found growing in our yard. Top right is a Christmas fern volunteer.

I’ve been lifting these baby ‘sporeling’ ferns from mosses in the yard, and from the plastic box where this all unfolded this spring quite accidentally, and then planting them into pots on the deck and around the garden.  I used a few in fern tables I’ve built this summer, and I’ve given a few as gifts.  Growing my own ferns is much like the luxury of growing one’s own summer tomatoes.  Such a pleasure to raise them at home and not need to run to the store for every fresh tomato sandwich- or each new fern included in a potted arrangement.

I am looking forward to watching this experiment unfold.  Without a greenhouse or dedicated light set-up, I’ll have to figure out a method for caring for all of the stages of growth as the ferns develop and mature.  The next challenge will be finding homes for all the many baby ferns I hope to have grown by this time next year.

Visit the Hardy Fern Foundation’s website for additional information on propagation.

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