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Happy little hybrid fern defies evolutionary rules

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Cystoathyrium on rock

This fern defies both time and perhaps nature. Known officially as Cystomcarpium Roskamianum, it is a hybrid created by two ferns separated by 60 million evolutionary years.

Ferns are one of the most soothing ground covers, delicate enough to inspire tranquility in a shady corner of the garden, yet tough enough to make it through a long, hot summer if properly attended often spreading, multiplying, only to be divided and shared with others.

Yet the love between two ferns seems to know no bounds, not time certainly or even reproduction. According to a DNA analysis, a hybrid fern known as Cystomcarpium Roskamianum, has parents from two different species separated by nearly 60 million years of evolution.

“A 60 million year divergence is approximately equivalent to a human mating with a lemur,” says Carl Rothfels, a fern researcher at the University of British Columbia, who headed the study. The team’s DNA analysis confirming the odd coupling is published in the March edition of the journal The American Naturalist.

Ruthless says the fern comes from two parents that you wouldn’t expect to be a couple. One lives on rocky outcrops. The other is found on the floors of forests. They are two different species are from different places, and yet somehow they get together to make this hybrid.

The freaky fern isn’t rare, but it is a record. These days, you can even buy it at some European garden centers, which means it will likely turn up in the U.S., perhaps to be purchased by some unknowingly plant enthusiast.

“Ferns are unique among plants for many reasons, and this study adds another potential difference to the list,” says Emily Sessa, a researcher at the University of Florida in Gainsville. Apparently, ferns do not easily evolve barriers that keep them from interbreeding.

Like many hybrids, this one is sterile, though it can reproduce by sending out runners across the ground.

“It seems to be quite happy,” says Rothfels.

George Freeman is a veteran journalist and photographer. An award-winning writer, editor and columnist in Springfield, Mo., with more than 50 years experience. His preference is for positive and uplifting stories about people, places, traditions and trends that make the Ozarks one of the most livable regions anywhere. A member of the Garden Writers Association of America, he is a past-president of the Society of Professional Journalists of Southwest Missouri, the Kansas and Ohio AP societies; a board member of Friends of the Garden and a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield. In 1976, he traveled to India as a member of a Rotary Foundation Group Study Exchange Team.

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