Two miniature spleenwort ferns from Japan, the maidenhair spleenwort and the tiger tail fern

Japan is home two miniature spleenwort ferns, Asplenium trichomanes and Asplenium incisum.  Both frequent rocky outcrops, with the former preferring moist sites in the shade while the latter is found in brighter places that are on average much drier.

Asplenium trichomanes is a tiny semi-evergreen fern.  Throughout the growing season it throws its tiny fronds in a small, loose rosette.  Each frond is once pinnate and between 5-10 cm long.  The pinnae are slightly lobed, roughly oval in shape, and grow in an alternating pattern down the black, wire-like rachis and average no more than 0.5-1 cm long each.  They are a dark blue-green color.  The oval sori grow in pairs on opposite sides of the costa.  The black stipe is quite short.  Both the stipe and rachis are scaleless.  It commonly forms large colonies even coating rock faces, but also can be seen in small groups.

Asplenium trichomanes in habitat
Asplenium trichomanes commonly grows in large colonies.

This  is a truly worldwide fern being found on every continent except Antarctica and even on some Pacific Ocean islands including Hawaii, and is represented by a number of subspecies throughout its impressive range.  In Japan it is widespread from north to south.  Some subspecies are polyploid (having more chromosomes than the normal compliment), but the Japanese plants are not.  This is a fern that grows on rocks or in the cracks of them exclusively.  On Kyushu it seems to prefer wet rock faces that are also subject to seasonal drying.  It grows from bright to dark shade.

Here is a remarkable little fern.  It can be found scattered around almost every temperate climate across the globe as well as some subtropical areas, and even odd places such as the mountains of Yemen and east Africa. In Japan it likes to grow in the company of its own kind and also alongside many other lithophytes including various types of fern, selaginellas, mosses, lichens, and so on.

Despite its delicate appearance, it can withstand drying even to the point of seeming death.  It can be found hanging completely desiccated in loose groups of crumpled fronds, however, like many lithophytic and epiphytic ferns, come the next rain its foliage re-hydrates and looks as good as new.  Another desirable feature it has is its truly miniature stature.  This is one tiny fern, usually not exceeding the breath of a human hand.  This one may not be a rarity, but it is a delightful little denizen of Japan’s rocky forests.

Asplenium trichomanes spore
The sori of Asplenium trichomanes.

The Japanese name for it, chasenshida, is rather whimsical, meaning “tea whisk fern” from the words chasen (“tea whisk”) and shida (“fern”).  The overall shape of the fern uprooted looks much like a bamboo whisk used to make macha tea.

A. incisum is very similar in size and form to A. trichomanes.  Obvious differences are that the pinnae are strongly lobed, the rachis is green, and the pinnae are a light green color.  Each pinna is much more elongated than in A. trichomanes and the variation in size, shape, and spacing along the frond’s length is more pronounced, with the middle blade pinnae being the longest and largest.  While the sori grow in an alternating pattern on opposite sides of the costa, they are elongated as well.  It is most commonly seen singly or in small groups, but occasionally occurring in larger colonies.

Asplenium incisum in habitat
Asplenium incisum is always found growing in the cracks of rocks where it is subject to dry and wet cycles.

This unassuming species is found throughout Japan from Hokkaido to Okinawa as well as Korea, China, and southeastern Siberia.  This is a fern that grows on rocks or in the cracks of them almost exclusively; rarely in rocky soil, but always on a strong incline.  On Kyushu it seems to prefer moist places that are also subject to seasonal drying.  It lives in both bright and dark shade, and occasionally even in sunny spots.  It grows at all elevations in the Fukuoka area.

Mature spore of Asplenium incisum
The mature sori of Asplenium incisum are elongated and grow in an even, alternating pattern.

When I first saw this fern I thought it was in fact a sporling of a much larger species.  A simple look at the underside of the frond told the tale however: this was a full grown, sporing fern.  It seems to prefer habitats perhaps a bit brighter and drier than its near relative A. trichomanes, but they can sometimes be seen side by side.  I’ve seen it growing seemingly out of the rock itself, but of course its roots were growing deep within a fissure in fact.  It enjoys a broad native range found throughout the Japanese Archipelago literally from Okinawa (where it is now extinct) to Hokkaido – that’s the equivalent of south Florida to southern Canada.  Honestly the overall impression this fern gives is unremarkable despite its deeply incised pinnae.  For that reason it will remain a common and humble resident of rock outcrops with few to pay it much mind, or much harm.

It’s Japanese name is grand for such a tiny and inconspicuous plant:  toranooshida, meaning “tiger’s tail fern” from the words toranoo (“tiger’s tail”) and shida (“fern”), no doubt in reference to the frond’s shape.

These ferns are quite easy in culture and are indifferent to temperature, both ranging from the subtropics to cold temperate climates.  They like a well draining, largely inorganic substrate, growing on or between rocks, or in a pot with pumice or the like.  I use kanuma for virtually all of my ferns, and these two grow just fine in it with perhaps a bit of peat moss.  I’d go easy on the fertilizer considering their chosen native haunts.  While they are not show stoppers, both make a very nice small potted fern or used as an accent plant in miniature container gardens or as companion plants for bonsai.  They can withstand drying, but I wouldn’t push them too much since they are very small plants.

I would imagine given their natural ranges these ferns can be grown from warm to cold temperate zones, USDA cold hardiness zones 3-9, with little difficulty.  While A. trichomanes is represented by some subspecies that are lime loving, the plants on Kyushu seem to be found on all kinds of substrates.

Asplenium trichomanes frond
The frond of Asplenium trichomanes is simple, yet elegant.
Asplenium incisum frond
The mature frond of Asplenium incisum – a “tiger’s tail”?.


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