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 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.