The Java Fern
Author to remain anonymous
Photos by Raffaele Bufo
the Java Fern
Java Fern, or as its known to scientists (y'know, patient people), Microsorium pteropus. Java Fern is, in my eyes, the perfect aquarium plant and still my favorite. And this is coming from a person who keeps such beauties as Cryptocorne axelrodi and Bacopa carolina. Why do I think Java Fern is the perfect aquarium plant? Quite simply, because anyone can grow the darn thing (like algae) and its beautiful to boot (unlike algae). For those aquarists who have never experienced Java Fern, consider these features:
It can be cultivated in tap water, dim or bright light, with or without gravel, fresh and brackish, soft or hard.
It flourishes without added fertilizers or CO2.
It is more snail resistant and actually grows better with higher fish loads.
Thus, if you' ve had trouble growing aquatic plants, you can probably grow Java Fern. Add to this a beautiful medium to dark green color with forms ranging from bushy to leafy spikes and you have what experts call a "beautiful" and "decorative" aquarium plant (James, 1986; Rataj & Horeman, 1977). Now that my shameless expounding is complete, we can describe the care and maintenance of this great aquarium plant.
Java Fern's Place in the World of Plants
To understand why Java Fern is so hardy and easy to propagate is to understand the evolution of plants in general. For simplicity lets group aquarium plants into three orders. At the lowest order is algae. Easily propagated by all aquarists (whether they want to or not) algae spores are carried through the air. At the next level are non-flowering plants. In this primitive group we find Ferns (such as Java and Watersprite), as well as mosses and minute floating plants such as Riccia. Many hobbyists may be suprised to learn that these plants not only reproduce vegetatively, but like algae, also by spores carried by the wind. The highest order of plants are flowering plants. This includes the popular aquarium plants including Echinodrous swordplants and Crytocornes. By now, you should realize that the difficulty in keeping many aquarium plants has much to do with their genetic simplicity.
So What is a Java Fern?
Java Fern is an amphibious jungle plant that grows attached to tree trunks, rocks, and the ground. It can be found growing on the water line of mountain streams and waterfalls, as a wild grass in tropical rain forests, and even in coastal brackish areas. But unlike many other aquarium plants, it can prosper submerged indefinitely. Its growth is such that as old leaves grow tall and die, new ones have already stole the spotlight. Java Fern (Microsorium pteropus) is widely distributed in tropical Southeast Asia, especially southern China and the Indo-Malayan area (that includes the island of Java and the Phillippines). Java Fern has also been recorded in Japan and the Pine Barrens of the New Jersey coast. This later location supposedly hosts a different Microsorium variety.
I have also heard some hobbyists claim there is an African variety of Java Fern, although this may be a reference to another aquatic fern, Bolbitis heudeloth. Furthermore, a Malayan plant similar to Java Fern is supposedly sold in shops. The hobbyists can distinguish this plant from true Java Fern by its thinner rhizomes and stems. A variety known as the "Windel v" is very attractive. These "other" Java Ferns may explain the recent discussions I've had with aquarists regarding different varieties of the plant. Hopefully someday an article will appear which will clear up the nomenclature!
Java Fern is composed of three important parts. The roots of the plant are its most unique aspect. They appear to function not as nutrient carries, but rather, as anchors. The roots are dark brown and hairlike and attach themselves to wood, gravel, and even rocks! This last anchor site still amazes me, since I have seen Java Fern become "stuck" to completely smooth stones. It is as if the roots become sticky, or find some way to adhere themselves to the seemingly smooth surface. The roots can become quite long when they are not attached. A Java Fern situated at the top of an aquarium can really "let its hair down" as it seems to "search" for an additional anchor site. The heart of a Java Fern is its durable rhizome, which creeps in length and thickness with age, and eventually branches out to cover wider areas. A Java Fern on the end of piece of 6" driftwood will eventually makes its way to the other side of wood. This could take a year to accomplish, though, as rhizome growth is slower than leaf development. The leaves of Java Fern are equally hardy. Healthy leaves are a stunning dark green with a leathery texture. A well-kept specimen can have a few leaves up to 10 inches long and 1.5 inches wide. It has been my experience that some plants tend to "stay low" in height as they branch out. This form is more like a bush. I have found that this characteristic develops in plants that are "floated" for a long time. By contrast, plants with thick rhizomes tend to develop a few tall, thick, "spiky" leaves. I think this may a species difference. Regardless of type, to encourage taller growth, new plants should be pruned so more energy is available for rhizome and leaf growth. Trust me - the leaves will come back, albeit taller. I have also seen shop varieties with trilobate leaves, but I have never, unfortunately, experienced these in my aquariums. This happens when the leaves are allowed to grow large.
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