High flying ferns

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Alpine Lady Fern on Pawnee Pass, Boulder County, Colorado

I remember my first travels in California and the East Coast as a child: what a shock to see huge sword ferns in the woods, or hillsides covered with hay-scented fern in Connecticut. I suspect many Colorado residents have never seen a fern in the wild here, although local floras enumerate dozens and dozens of species. Most are inconspicuous rock ferns tucked in tiny crevices, or the larger woodland sorts are usually restricted to shady ravines far from the busy highway. One ostentatious and delightful fern forsakes the dark nooks favored by its cousins: the alpine lady fern (Athyrium distentifolium v. americanum) is found here and there across the state, usually right at treeline where it makes dense patches a foot or more tall and across--vibrant green against the ruddy granite or schist. I photographed this well-known colony a few days ago at over 10,500' on the steep climb up Pawnee Pass. The sign says 4 miles from the Long Lake parking lot to the summit. My feet said more like 500 miles by the time we got back to drive home. Many spring flowers linger near snowbanks, and the summer and autumn color is awash. And the bright green of this unusual fern--found sporadically across the Northern Hemisphere at similar high elevations--is enough to warm the cockles of a fern lover's heart. He who does not love ferns has a hard heart indeed!

Closeup of alpine lady fern on Pawnee Pass

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