Ferns are a very ancient family of plants they were already around more than 360 million years ago. They are older than land animals and far older than the dinosaurs.
They were thriving on Earth for two hundred million years before the flowering plants evolved. They belong to a group of about 20,000 species of plants.
Several species have been recorded in the Maltese islands but only one, the maiden hair fern known in Maltese as tursin il-bir, is frequent. This species is found in shaded humid places such as the sides of deep valleys, inside wells, in cave openings and in humid courtyards. It is a native to western and southern Europe, Africa North America and
Like all plants, ferns have evolved to suit their environment. Ferns are very successful niche plants: they are well adapted to particular environmental niches - soil moisture, humidity, light, etc. They seldom grow outside these niches, some of which are very specific. Some can tolerate extreme drought and heat; others only live in the deepest rainforest.
Ferns are not as important economically as seed plants but have considerable importance. Some are used for food while many species are used in horticulture as landscape plants, cut foliage and as household plants. Several species are weeds but their most important use is as coal which consists of the remains of primitive plants mainly ferns.
Ferns are also found in the folklore of many countries. A theme that runs in many parts of the world is based on the fact that ferns do not produce flowers. In many places it was believed that once a year they produce mythical flowers or seeds and that anybody who finds them.
During the Victorian era there was a craze for fern collecting and the use of fern motifs in decorative arts including pottery, glass, metal and textiles which gave rise to the term Pteridomania.
This article was published in The Times on 11 November 2009.