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Weekly “What is it?”: Winter Grapefern

The expansive, nearly 150-year old St. John’s Cemetery in Pensacola is the home of one of the largest concentrations of the rare winter grapefern plant. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Old cemeteries are where we go to remember—to visit loved ones long gone, to learn our history, and to understand more about those who built our communities. They are quite places of reflection and peace. Because they are large tracts of undeveloped land, they often become sanctuary to wildlife and native plants, as well.

One such native plant that thrives—almost solely—in a local cemetery is winter grapefern (Botrychium lunarioides). According to an annual spring count taken by the local chapter of the Native Plant Society, well over 1,000 individual plants grow in St. John’s Cemetery located in west Pensacola. St. John’s is an old (1876) cemetery that covers 10 city blocks, and is home to the second largest population of the plant in the state. Interestingly, the largest population of the rare species can be found at another cemetery (in DeFuniak Springs).

Close-up photo of winter grapefern in bloom. Photo credit: Alan Cressler, Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

The grapefern blooms between January and March, and has an odd structure and an appropriate name. Its delicate, clustered leaves are fanlike in appearance. On a stalk growing up from the leaves are clusters of seeds that resemble a tiny bunch of grapes. The fern has both sterile and fertile parts, with the sterile fronds growing horizontally along the ground and the fertile ones vertically in the air. This likely helps with wind dispersal of the spores, which are released this time of year through April.

The plants are very difficult to find, as they grow low on the ground, below taller plants, and are not brightly colored. This characteristic may be why they are more frequently seen and found in cemeteries, as larger shrubs and grasses are rarely present in these sites.