I recently had the opportunity to spend time in the Atlantic Forest, a South American moist tropical forest that is one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world. Covering parts of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina, there are many endemic species of flora and fauna the call the forest home. Over 20,000 species of plants are found in the Atlantic Forest, which makes it equivalent to Disney World for a plant lover like me.
While hiking the forests, I relished the sight of epiphytes (air plants that live on other plants) thriving on just about any inhabitable surface, along with an abundance of mosses, orchids, bamboos, and bromeliads.
However, my favorite experience – my once-in-a-blue-moon-moment – my bucket list item – that one thing I could not wait to see – was a fern. But not just any fern. A fern in the air. With a *trunk. And one heck of a story to tell. A Tree Fern.
*Resembling an arborescent trunk, a tree fern is actually supported by an upright, tightly packed accumulation of rhizomes. Functionally, this stem provides structure and transports water and nutrients, not unlike the trunks of woody plants.
In that serendipitous moment, I spotted them in the sky. Towering upwards of thirty feet and sporting graceful fronds that go on for days, I can personally guarantee you that tree ferns do not disappoint. I would have been no more impressed had a pterodactyl soared through the tree tops (and immersed in this ancient, lush landscape, it seemed like a distinct possibility).
Belonging to the genus Cyathea, there are over 500 scaly tree fern species that can be found growing in tropical areas around the world. Seedless and spore-bearing like their crouched relatives, tree ferns have an arborescent trunk-like stem and have been known to reach over sixty feet in height. They are commonly found in wet lowlands to mid elevations and are known for their pronounced local endemism – species tend to be specialized and limited to a small geographic area.
Tree ferns have quite a story to tell, as rich fossil deposits have been found containing their ancient relatives, dating back to the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Though they have some short roots that are used to anchor them to the soil, many of their roots aren’t in the ground at all and instead cover the trunk. These aerial roots descend from the crown of leaves, capturing the moisture in the air. I think you’ll agree that plants don’t get nearly enough credit for their creativity and resourcefulness.
Most tree ferns are listed under Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), requiring a permit for international commerce involving these plants. Unfortunately, this protection doesn’t extend to threats brought from forest destruction and fragmentation. As a result, many tree ferns are considered threatened in their home range and can benefit from conservation measures in their native habitats.