Do you remember when a meteorite from Mars was found at Antarctica, and some scientists believed that it contained fossilized bacteria?

Well now the Mars rover, Spirit, a multitask exploration vehicle, is currently searching the red planet for fossilized evidence of water and the presence of past or present life.

"One Small Step For Man ..."

Spirit, focusing on Martian soil and rocks, is sending fantastic pictures to Earth from the surface of Mars, and curiously, the photos of some flatter features resemble stepping stones.

In any case, I've been following Spirit's progress. Being a multitasker myself, as I was studying the latest shots from Mars, I was also studying a mail-order catalog for gardeners. Guess what?

There were stepping stones for sale in the catalog. As a matter of fact, not only were there stepping stones, but these particular stepping stones resembled fossilized ferns.

Ferns, you see, have been on my mind too ever since I decided to build a home-made terrarium for ferns.

In the meantime, the combination of simultaneously finding fossil-like stepping stones in a catalog and watching the Mars rover reminded me of just how old ferns really are.

Ferns Are As Old As The Hills

It's unlikely that Spirit will find fossils of ferns. Still, and for millions of years prior to the existence of flowering plants on Earth, ferns were thriving in "Paleozoic" (600 to 230 million years ago) swamps.

It seems unimaginable, yet for more than 300 million years, the overall appearance of ferns hasn't changed.

By the way, the legacy of ancient ferns can still be found in today's coal mines.

As the debris from prehistoric ferns piled and formed layers, fern debris was turned into peat - the same peat that gardeners use as a soil amendment. Under tremendous pressure from the immense piles, then the peat was transformed into coal.

Maidenhair Ferns As House Plants

The fern-like, stepping stones in the catalog also reminded me of "maidenhair spleenwort" (Asplenium trichomanes), an attractive and easy to grow fern.

Commonly known as maidenhair ferns, these ferns flourish best indoors as house plants when they receive light that's equivalent to a northern exposer and when humidity is kept at 60 percent or more.

The greatest problem that folks have with growing ferns indoors, incidentally, is the drying out of their "fronds" (leaves). Why?

Most homes lack sufficient humidity for ferns to succeed, even in bathroom and kitchen areas.

So I'll grow my next fern in an enclosed terrarium where the humidity can be better controlled.

I'll also plant it in a sterile potting mix keeping the soil moist, though not soggy.

Evening temperatures from 50 to 60 degrees, and daytime temperatures from 70 to 80 degrees, are ideal.

Keep maidenhair ferns compact and healthy by pruning them during spring and summer. Remove dead fronds at any time.

This Week In The Garden

Many house plants benefit from supplemental humidity. Setting flower pots on trays of gravel and keeping the trays wet with water helps add humidity to the immediate surroundings.

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