The na­ture of things

Bracken

Country Life Every Week - - Town & Country Notebook - Edited by

THOMAS HARDY (1840–1928), be­ing a close observer of Dorset heaths, knew a thing or two about the char­ac­ter of bracken and its dra­matic po­ten­tial. To send a hero­ine out onto the heath on a dark and stormy night (with baby clasped to her chest) is bad enough, but his read­ers’ anx­i­ety is height­ened when the bracken thick­ets ‘en­close her like a pool’. Strug­gling through, she must lift the baby high above her head ‘out of reach of their drench­ing fronds’.

Like­wise, Hardy’s con­tem­po­rary, the nat­u­ral­ist Richard Jef­feries (1848–1887), could build up sus­pense merely on a coun­try ram­ble, when con­fronted by a thick wall of veg­e­ta­tion. ‘To push a way through the ever-thick­en­ing bracken be­comes more and more la­bo­ri­ous,’ he wrote. ‘The pre­cise sense of di­rec­tion is quickly lost… The bracken is now as high as the shoul­ders, and the eye can­not pen­e­trate many yards on ei­ther side… On again, with more tall bracken, thorn thick­ets, and maple bushes, and not­ing now the strange ab­sence of liv­ing things… there are places haunted and places deserted, save by oc­ca­sional pass­ing vis­i­tors.’

Due to its abil­ity to spread far and wide by spores and also stolons, toxic and car­cino­genic Pterid­ium aquil­inum is the devil to erad­i­cate. Though its ferns turn to rust and die with win­ter’s ap­proach, fresh croziers bounce back with the spring to con­tinue their on­ward march. KBH

Il­lus­tra­tion by Bill Dono­hoe

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