Bonding with Ursula

15 12 2017


A few weeks after my friend Elizabeth passed away suddenly (heart atack), I was offered one of her plants. I thought it would be nice to have something, in addition to her hand-drawn holiday cards. Arrangements to pick up the plant were complicated by a snow storm and ultimately included breakfast at Friendly’s with a long-time friend/twice boyfriend.

Before I even knew much about this particular plant, another friend named it Ursula. That reminded me of a spider because a local shop is named Ursula’s Web. It suggested an octopus (from The Little Mermaid) to my daughter. But it turns out she was a fern of some type. Which was perfect because my friend Elizabeth had been one of the co-authors of the newly published Peterson’s Field Guide to the Ferns.

Ursula arrived in a box, covered with a black plastic garbage bag, so I was unprepared for her stunning beauty and uniqueness when I unwrapped her. Placing her in a wrought iron stand, I stepped back to admire her. She was solid, lush, and a bit disheveled… kinda like Elizabeth.

Her rhizomes (=root in a fern) were cinnamon and furry, kinda like Elizabeth’s hair. Somewhat like a tarantula. Or an octopus. I later learned she was a Rabbit’s Foot Fern (Phlebodium aureum), again perfect as my last name means rabbit in French. I was in love with this plant, as I’d never been before. I could envision Elizabeth in one of her (very) silly moods running her fingers along one of the rhizomes, petting her fern, and saying in a breathy voice (followed by a deep throated chuckle), “Calm down, dear, it will be okay.”

When I had a chance to look at Ursula more closely, I discovered she had many fertile fronds (=leaves) whose undersides were covered with symmetrically spaced spores. These are the fern’s reproductive equivalent of seeds; this can be an indication of either a very healthy plant or one under stress, trying to be sure there is a next generation.

brown tips

Two observations caused me to wonder about the stress factor. Many of Ursula frond tips were brown, perhaps a sign of too little water or too much fertilizer, but definitely an indicator of a problem. When I read about her species, there was a lot of discrepancy in the suggestions on temperature, humidity, and watering. I decided I needed to remove all the brown tips, so I could judge if I was caring for her properly. I got out my nail scissors and began the delicate operation. While doing so, I remembered my last visit with Elizabeth. She had been to a salon for the first time in decades to make some order out of her chaotic hair. Her hesitation at cutting much off was forefront in my mind, as I assured Ursula that I was only cutting what needed to be removed.

I also saw some areas that might be scale, an insect pest. I couldn’t determine if it was clusters of detached spores (an OK thing) or the pest. I erred on the side of removing most of the white clumps and will watch the others. If I were Elizabeth, I’d take out my loop and figure it out. Aw, heck, she’d probably know without needing her hand lens.

Which brings me to the reality of my situation: I have this plant, this lovely Ursula, because I (and the 200 other friends who attended her memorial service) no longer have Elizabeth. I stop writing, look out the window, and wonder why.