All plants undergo some form of alternation of generations. It is the process in which, through reproduction, they cycle between a haploid gametophyte stage and a diploid sporophyte stage. In ferns and lycophytes, this alternation of generations has been taken to the extreme. Instead of the sporophyte relying on the gametophyte for sustenance, the two generations are physically independent and thus separated from one another. In a handful of fern genera here in North America, this has led to some intriguing and, dare I say, downright puzzling distributions.
The presence of a small handful of tropical fern genera in temperate North America has generated multiple scientific investigations since the early 1900's. However, as is constantly happening in science, as soon as we answer one question, seemingly infinite more questions arise. At the very least, the presence of these ferns in temperate regions offers us a tantalizing window into North America’s ancient past.
To say any of these ferns offer the casual observer much to look at would be a bit of an exaggeration. They do not play out their lives in typical fern fashion. These out-of-place tropical ferns exists entirely as asexual colonies of gametophytes, reproducing solely by tiny bundles of cells called gemmae. What's more, you will only find them tucked away in the damp, sheltered nooks and crannies of rocky overhangs and waterfalls. Buffered by unique microclimates, it is very likely that these fern species have existed in these far away corners for a very, very long time. The last time their respective habitats approached anything resembling a tropical climate was over 60 million years ago. Some have suggested that they have been able to hang on in their reduced form for unthinkable lengths of time in these sheltered habitats. Warm, wet air gets funneled into the crevices and canyons where they grow, protecting them from the deep freezes so common in these temperate regions. Others have suggested that their spores blew in from other regions around the world and, through chance, a few landed in the right spots for the persistence of their gametophyte stages.
Aside from their mysterious origins, there is also the matter of why we never find a mature sporophyte of any of these ferns. At least 4 species in North America are known to exist this way - Grammitis nimbata, Hymenophyllum tunbridgense, Vittaria appalachiana, and a member of the genus Trichomanes, most of which are restricted to a small region of southern Appalachia. In the early 1980's, an attempt at coaxing sporophyte production from V. appalachiana was made. Researchers at the University of Tennessee brought a few batches of gametophytes into cultivation. In the confines of the lab, under strictly controlled conditions, they were able to convince some of the gametophytes to produce sporophytes. As these tiny sporophytes developed, they were afforded a brief look at what this fern was all about. It confirmed earlier suspicions that it was indeed a member of the genus Vittaria, or as they are commonly known, the shoestring ferns. The closest living relative of this genus can be found growing in Florida, which hints at a more localized source for these odd gametophytes. However, both physiology and subsequent genetic analyses have revealed the Appalachian Vittaria to be a distinct species of its own. Thus, the mystery of its origin remains elusive.
In order to see them for yourself, you have to be willing to cram yourself into some interesting situations. They really put the emphasis on the "micro" part of the microclimate phenomenon. Also, you really have to know what you are looking for. Finding gametophytes is rarely an easy task and when you consider the myriad other bryophytes and ferns they share their sheltered habitats with, picking them out of a lineup gets all the more tricky. Your best bet is to find someone that knows exactly where they are. Once you see them for the first time, locating other populations gets a bit easier. The casual observer may not understand the resulting excitement but once you know what you are looking at, it is kind of hard not to get some goosebumps. These gametophyte colonies are a truly bizarre and wonderful component of North American flora.