Sunday, 7 June 2009

Bracken

The woodland floor is damp from the morning rain. The soft mass of leaf litter and other decaying organic matter forms a cool carpet beneath the tall oaks. I sit facing a small clearing and look out over the tall bracken that arises from the earth and uncurls towards the sky. Its dark green stems rise straight up with large fronds branching out horizantally. The apex is formed by a tight mass of intricately curled up new growth that will rapidly unwrap into the woodland space. Now, at around 4ft tall, this mass of strong verticals contrasts with the diagonals and horizantals of nearby bramble plants which tangle through the field layer. These are perennial whereas the bracken will entirely die down to soil level at the end of each year.

I look more closely at the bracken stems. I did down into the deep leaf litter, and see where it arises from an bulbous part of the rhizome that reaches throughout, and deep into, the woodland floor. There can be a sizeable amount of the plant buried beneath the surface and we see only a superficial part of it. I break open one of the main stems. It is tough and can easily cut the skin. There It is made up of many large strong fibers which separate to reveal a thick syrupy sap that covers my fingers. There must be a large amount of moisture held within these young plants. Some of last years decaying stems are still standing and these are now dry and brittle and can easily be crushed in my fingers.

The large flat and spreading fronds begin to shade all the woodland floor - taking advantage of the available light before the leaf canopy fully forms above them. The fronds have a strong mid stem and then the soft and delicate parts of the leaf reach outwards. They are beautiful to touch. The outer edges of the fronds are a more yellowy green than the main parts of the frond. They are almost like huge feathers.

Bracken always feels cool and has a wonderful fragrance. I wonder what ecological value they have. I do some research on the internet at home and find out more details that I'm not going to repeat here.

They are plants of strength and beauty but, like the bramble, they persevere, they compete, they dominate and form an important part of the ecology where they are present by changing both micro and macro habitats in may ways. Here they will significantly add to the biomass of the woodland and through their decay will add to the organic matter in the ground layer. It has no predators and so is a great coloniser where conditions are right.

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