Today we celebrate the birthday of one Frederick Orpen Bower, born 4 November 1855. Bower, an English botanist, was famous for his studies of the origins and evolution of primitive land plants such as ferns and mosses. In his research, published in books like Origin of a Land Flora (1908), Ferns (1923-28), and Primitive Land Plants (1935), Bower concluded that these plants had evolved from algal ancestors.
Ferns, the subject of much of Bower’s research, is a fascinating plant in many ways. Unlike mosses, ferns are vascular plants with stems, leaves and roots. Unlike other vascular plants, however, they reproduce via spores rather than flowers and seeds.
While we typically associate ferns with moist, shady areas, they can be found in a wide variety of habitats, from desert rocks to mountains to water bodies. They can prosper in marginal areas where many flowering plants fail to grow. This tenacity make certain fern species serious weeds, such as the Bracken Fern in Scotland, and the giant water fern, one of the world’s worst aquatic weeds.
From a biochemical point of view, ferns can be particularly useful in fixing nitrogen from the air into compounds usable by other plants, and for removing heavy metals from the soil.
Patterns and motives based on fern shapes are popular in traditional art and culture. In New Zealand, for example, the silver fern is a very prominent cultural symbol, featured often in traditional art. The leaf of the silver fern is also the proud emblem of many of the country’s top sporting teams such as All Blacks (rugby) and Silver Ferns (netball).
On a more esoteric level, ferns are a wonderful embodiment of mathematics in nature, with young fern fronds unrolling in stunning Fibonacci spirals. The patterns and structure of fern leaves can also be simulated by means of iterative mathematical functions.
Definitely a plant that fascinates on many levels. No wonder Frederick Bowen committed his life to studying these wonderful plants!