What’s not to like about ferns? They have the most eye-catchingly beautiful leaves that come in innumerable shapes and forms, with fascinating designs. Most of us have seen these plants with feathery leaves in hanging baskets or gardens, and sometimes as house plants. When grown as garden plants, they need to be regularly watered, and most often need a lot of humidity. They are ubiquitous plants in places that get a lot of rainfall, in the tropics. In the Western Ghats, for example, they can be everywhere – on walls, roofs, tree branches, roadsides and so on.

Ferns are ancient plants that pre-date flowering plants by millions of years. They have their own group in the plant kingdom: higher than mosses but lower than angiosperms (flowering plants). What sets ferns apart from mosses and other lower plants is their vascular system – the presence of xylem and phloem. They don’t produce flowers and seeds, but instead produce spores from specialised structures on their leaves. These spores are extremely tiny and dust-like and are carried by the wind.

Ferns are masters of survival and grow wherever there is moisture, moderately rich soil with lots of organic matter, and shade or full sun. As it turns out, the only places in urban forests that fulfil these requirements are crevices and nooks in rocky ground and beneath boulders; this is the perfect substrate because over the years, eroding rock, decaying plant matter, and nutrients and minerals trapped inside create the rich, dark soil that ferns need.

Few people know that the dry and stony forests around Bangalore have some interesting ferns hidden in them. They grow tucked away in rock crevices and at the bases of huge boulders. These are special ferns adapted to the relatively dry climate and heat, and can be seen only during the few monsoon months of the city.

The only fern that thrives in the urban environment of Bangalore, Pteris vittata is quick to come up in cracks in cement, walls, water-tank bases, etc.

Pteris vittata never grows in open, bare soil—only in cracks and crevices and rarely in containers—so they are easy to find in old stone buildings and houses. It is a hardy fern that prefers a lime-rich medium. This photograph was taken at my home.

Spores on the leaves of Pteris vittata.

This petite fern, Actiniopteris radiata, also has a preference for calcareous soil. So what better place than an old stone wall? Its leaves are shaped like slit fans or little green parasols. This fern is much harder to find than Pteris vittata.

One of the most common ferns in our region, Adiantum incisum, one of the maidenhair ferns, can be seen in shaded and moist spots in hills. Its vibrant green leaves are hard to miss, and the leaflets have small incisions. This fern has an ability that few have – the sensitive tips of the leaves grow long and spindly until they touch a suitable surface, and they then take root and a new plant arises from there. That is why they are most often found in colonies. This photo was taken at Siddarabetta, near Tumkur.

This lively colony of Adiantum incisum was seen at Bananthimari, near Kanakapura.

One of the daintiest ferns I’ve come across, Cheilanthes tenuifolia is a nice fern to spot amidst rocks at the foot of boulders and rocky slopes.

Cheilanthes tenuifolia has black stalks and lacy leaves, and its name is derived from the Latin word ‘tenuifolius’, meaning thin leaves.

A compact fern with rigid leaves, Asplenium mysurensis is another beautiful catch. Seen here with the fern are herbaceous plants, Selaginella, Riccia, algae and moss, showing the whole habitat on the thin soil layers that these rocky hills support.

Nandi Hills gets shrouded in clouds during the rainy season, and ferns enjoy the cool, moist, hill-station weather. Some Western Ghats species such as the Doryopteris concolor thrive here in this weather.

These beautiful ferns with the stunning, glossy, arrow-shaped leaves are Hemionitis arifolia, seen here in a sheltered cove in Siddarabetta. These ferns can be seen in the smaller hills too.

Notice the pattern of the sori (clusters of sprorangia – the structures containing and producing spores) on the lower surface of the leaf of Hemionitis arifolia.

Mosses and lichens form pretty epiphytic mats in cool and moist areas. This is a mossy trunk in Nandi Hills.

The best time to spot these beauties around Bangalore is from June to October: ferns thrive during the monsoon, and during the rest of the year, when temperatures are high and the soil gets dry, their leaves completely dry up and they go into dormancy. Their roots store precious water and food, and that keeps them alive until the next rainy season. They might not be easily spotted, but look carefully in between rocks, in shady crevices, or on roadsides, and you might see the gorgeous maidenhair ferns and more.

Nandi Hills, being at a higher elevation than the rest of the hills, has a rich diversity of ferns that are a delight to see during the monsoon. The rest of the bettas (hills) in and around the city too are great for spotting some elusive ferns.