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Ebony Spleenwort – What’s in a Name

Posted by on February 8, 2010

I’ve always been curious about things with the word “spleen” in its name since I don’t have one. Spleen that is. For those not up on human anatomy, the spleen is a sort of soft, spongy organ, usually located on the left side, just below the last rib. It used to be thought that people couldn’t live without it, but advances in surgical  medicine during WWII and Korea proved that wrong. The word “wort” in Old English, merely means “plant.”  So, Ebony Spleenwort (Asplenium platyneuron) a black spleen plant? How could that be. Well, in this case, the word “spleen” appears to refer to the shape of the pinna. The pinna on the fern are those leaf like structures along the rachis, the stiff, stem-like part the pinna are attached to.  By the way, the word pinna is singular. If  you refer to all of the pinna attached to the rachis, you use the plural word,  pinnae. In this case the rachis is very dark, in most cases black, hence the descriptive, Ebony, in the common name. In real life, Ebony is the name of  a type of wood which happens to be black.

I really like this little fern. It is not a show-off, in fact it can be easily overlooked among all the moss and lichen this time of year.  Unlike the Christmas fern which can form large colonies in the winter, the Ebony Spleenwort  tucks itself in little rock crevices here and there.  It is a tough one, almost indestructible, an underdog that perseveres. Reference books on my shelf say the spores ripen in the sori in the spring. These appear to be almost ripe now. Perhaps the groundhog is not the one we should look to in forecasting Spring’s arrival. Somehow the image of TV camera and crowds of people surrounding someone holding up a small Ebony Spleenwort isn’t as dramatic as holding up a groundhog that’ll bite you if you are careless.

The tips of the Ebony Spleenwort are pinnatifid, that is the pinna are not completely separated from each other.

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