Introduction: How to Grow Ferns From Spores

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Last spring I bought a lovely maidenhair fern for my balcony garden.  It grew happily and soon became one of my favorites.  Towards the end of June I went away for a week on vacation.  The weather was cool and rainy so I had thought my balcony plants would be fine for the week.  Nope, I was wrong; when I came back the fern had dried, dead foliage (yet my other plants were okay).  I spent a couple of weeks in denial, watering it in hopes that it will soon perk up.  Sadly it never did.

I eventually accepted that my poor little fern was really gone.  When I went to clear out the planter to make room for something else, I notice little brown bumps on the underside of the dead fern's leaves.  I immediately flashed back to my university botany class where I learned about the fern's life cycle.  These little brown bumps contained sporangia (spores), a means by which ferns can reproduce.  Although my little fern is gone, I could create new ferns from its spores.

Acquiring spores
Ferns tend to produce spores in the summer.  I was fortunate with my fern since it already had spores by the end of June.  Look for little brown-black bumps (sori) on the underside of the leaf (see image 2+3 above), maidenhair fern sori appear towards the front edge of the leaves.  When you find a frond with sori, remove the whole frond and place it into a paper envelope and store for a couple of days in a dry location.  After a few days there should be a fine dusting of brownish coloured spores in your envelope.

It is important to use sterile soil when germinating spores.  I used a glass container with a narrow opening so that I can place a plastic lid over to prevent the soil from drying out.  In the container I layered of pebbles, some activated charcoal (since the container has no drainage), then the sterile potting soil.  Water the soil then sprinkle the spores sparsely over the surface.  Put a lid on the container and keep indoors in a place where it can receive indirect light and importantly, make sure the soil does not dry out.

This part requires patience, as you can see from the dates on my pictures above this process can take a while (I started in July 2010).  Also it is important to realize that the first things you see growing, the prothalli (gametophytes), look nothing like the mature fern (see description of fern life cycle below).  Just remember to keep the soil moist at all times and eventually things will start happening.

When the young sporophytes begin to mature and crowd the growing container you may need to transplant.  In February I divided the clump of young sporophytes into two and placed the other half into a similar glass container, at this point they are still quite delicate and so transplanting requires great care.  By late April, they were again crowding their containers so I transplanted some into pots.



Fern Life Cycle
Ferns have what is known as an Alternation of Generation life cycle.  The mature fern is referred to as a sporophyte.  The sporophyte produces sporangia (spores) through meiosis.  The sporangia are found in clusters called sori under the leaves of most ferns. They are then disperse when conditions are right. From sporangia grow prothalli (gametophytes).  The gametophytes develop antheridia and archegonium (the male and female organs) on its lower surface.  The male antheridia develops first and if the environment is moist enough the sperm can swim to the archegonium of another gametophyte.  From this fertilization a zygote forms and grows from the gametophyte eventually forming its own root and becoming a young sporophyte. 

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