Determined to Live: Ebony Spleenwort

“Perfection is born of imperfection.”
Richie Norton

We were surprised today to find tiny ferns growing in the cracks of an old brick wall encircling Bruton Parish church in Colonial Williamsburg.   Near the end of our walk to photograph this year’s wreathes, we were headed back to the car when tiny bits of green growing from the mortar between old bricks caught our attention.

“Being strong is not just about your physical strength, no,
it is about your capacity to handle
difficult problem with ease.”
Nurudeen Ushawu

We noticed patches of moss, which is not so unusual, growing near these very persistent an determined ferns.  This part of the wall is shaded by an ancient live oak tree.   The wall itself dates to the mid-eighteenth century, and has stood through good times and dangerous times in the colonial district of Williamsburg, Virgninia.


The Bruton Parish chuchyard, where prominent Virginians have been buried since the late 17th Century.  We found ferns growing on the outside of this wall.

“Continuous effort –
not strength or intelligence –
is the key to unlocking our potential.”
Winston S. Churchill

The ferns are native to Virginia.  Commonly known as ebony spleenwort, these small ferns grow in little clusters in moist locations throughout our region.

They can be found in many shady places.  But they particularly enjoy growing on calcareous rocks and between old bricks.  Growing on a vertical wall doesn’t phase them, and they can also sometimes be found on rock walls, rotting wood and old fences.

“Dripping water hollows out stone,
not through force but through persistence.”

I admire the perseverance of such determined little plants.  Their airborne spores landed in a crack in this centuries old mortar, in a moist crevice where they began to grow.  Despite  past summers’ droughts, the tiny plants have found enough moisture to keep growing.

No gardener waters them or grooms them.  These tiny plants look out for themselves season after season.

These are evergreen ferns, and will cling to their crevice and to life no matter what weather this winter coming brings.

“Most of the important things in the world
have been accomplished by people
who have kept on trying
when there seemed to be no hope at all.”
Dale Carnegie

If you love ferns growing in your garden, you might consider growing ebony spleenwort.  Please don’t collect from the wild.  The fern you dig or rip out will leave much of its roots behind.  You may or may not be able to replicate its habitat.

No, please buy a nursery grown fern and establish it in a moist, shady spot in your garden.  These ferns like lime-rich rocky soil, and you may be able to get them to establish in a rocky area, or even on a wall in your own garden.

I actually found a pair of these little ferns growing in some mulch carelessly left on top of some Juniper fronds over the summer.  They had rooted into the moist mulch, and I could easily lift them and re-plant them in soil in a shady spot nearby.  Once established, they will produce spores each year, and these spores will spread and allow for new ferns to grow nearby.

Ferns sometimes pop up as if ‘by magic’ in our area.  And natural magic it is, this miraculous journey from a tiny spore into a growing fern.  But that is another story best left for another post.


Asplenium platyneuron, ebony spleenwort, is named for the ebony colored stipe and petiole of each frond.  This fern was once thought to have medicinal properties for curing diseases of the spleen. 

Woodland Gnome 2017
“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”
Many thanks to Helen Hamilton for her field guide, Ferns and Mosses of Virginia’s Coastal Plain


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