Robbin C. Moran looks like the quintessential nerd: bad haircut, huge eyeglasses, boyish look despite being a scholar. Unsurprisingly, he has written a nerd book about - wait for it - ferns!
Thank God for Robbie, I don't necessarily mind ferns. Quite the contrary. In Sweden, we call them "snake plants" (or something to that effect), so I was fascinated by them already as a kid. Still today, I get an uncanny feeling walking in a forest where the ground is covered by ferns. After all, you never now what might lurk below them. Snakes, perhaps? (A clue: mostly mosquitoes!) One of the fern species growing around here has edible roots. Polypodium vulgare, I believe.
Still, a small word of warning might be in order. If you want to read "A Natural History of Ferns", you need to be very enthusiastic about the subject. Moran writes about fern taxonomy and the exact shape of fern buds with that nerdie kind of enthusiasm some people might find very annoying. In other words, you need to be a fern-lover already before you pick up this book, to really appreciate the author's efforts!
Like those ferns, Moran covers a lot of ground in his book. There are basic chapters on fern reproduction, hybrids, taxonomy and evolutionary history. Much of this information was new to me, for instance that lycophytes aren't fern allies, or that horsetails are ferns! I belong to the generation whose field guides were still made according to the old taxonomy.
The most interesting chapters, however, are those who deal with more human-related information. Did you know that Shakespeare mentions ferns in one of his plays? Or that fern "seeds" are supposed to have magical properties, according to some old wives' tale? Apparently, you are supposed to collect them on June 23, so I guess I just blew it. That was yesterday! Moran also mentions a modern Hollywood comedy about ferns, "A New Leaf". He discusses Arthur Conan Doyle's book "The Lost World". The plot of the novel is set on a mysterious hill in South America, known as tepui. Such hills actually exist, and are real havens for scientists interested in ferns. We further learn about an ill-fated expedition to the Australian hinterland, in which delicious but poisonous ferns played a part. And then there's the "Victorian fern craze" (pteridomania) in 19th century England, when English collectors almost drew ferns extinct in some regions. The author also mentions "the molesting salvinia", a dangerous weed that threatened entire regions in Sri Lanka, southern Africa and New Guinea, until scientists discovered a new species of beetle that only consumed salvinias, thus saving humanity from yet another environmental harzard. Sounds like the perfect topic for a Hollywood comedy...
"The Natural History of Ferns" also contain intriguing chapters about cryptid ferns, fern bulbs inhabited by really nasty ants, iridescent ferns that look blue (a photo is included), and the "fern spike", a fossil layer of fern spores which confirm the theory that the dinosaurs went extinct due to a meteorite impact. Moran also discusses the rather curious fact that the fern flora of the *eastern* United States is virtually identical to that of East Asia. He also takes us to the Juan Fernandez Islands, home of 54 fern species, 25 of which are endemic.
The weirdest piece of information in this book is the revelation that scientists who describe a new species have to do it in...Latin. Still today, over 200 years after Carolus Linnaeus. If I ever discover a new species of Polypodium, I guess I would have to keep it to myself! I didn't take those Latin classes in senior high, you see...
In sum, "The Natural History of Ferns" by Robbin C. Moran is exactly what you've been looking for - if you suffer from pteridomania.