Intricate Design with Ferns in Woven Baskets

fern frond microscopic view
A microscopic view inside a fern frond stipe where the vascular bundles that transport water through the leaf are visible like beans inside the round, stem-like structure.

My fascination with ferns started with an appreciation of their beauty and eventually translated into a scientific curiosity about how these seemingly delicate plants handle drought. As a postdoc at U.C. Santa Cruz, I looked into the basis of drought tolerance in native coast redwood forest ferns and found both beauty at the fern cellular level and insight into these plants’ drought tolerance. It turns out that I’m late in recognizing the value of fern fronds, as Native Americans have been using ferns to create spectacular baskets for generations.

Inside each fern frond runs thin strands of piping (fern nerds like me refer to these as vascular bundles) that transport water through the fern leaves and strengthen the fronds. Made up of cells very similar to the cells found in the wood of redwood, the vascular bundles are tough and help the plant handle dry conditions when water is scarce and under tension in the frond. In the cross-section photo of Woodwardia fimbriata (giant chain fern), you can see these vascular bundles shaped like kidney beans and the water-conducting cells within them.

Karuk Basket
A gorgeous Karuk basket designed with black maidenhair fern and red Woodwardia filaments, ca. 1920. Courtesy of the Portland Museum.

Many Native Americans tribes in the coast redwood region use ferns in their traditional basket-making. The Karuk, whose ancestral territory spans the Klamath River region northwards into Southern Oregon, pulled out fern vascular bundles from Woodwardia fronds, dyed them red with alder bark, and used these fern strands to add intricate designs into their baskets. They used many other sources of locally-available plants as well, including the black stem-like stipes of maidenhair fern.


About the author

Emily Burns, the League’s former Director of Science, led the research program that includes the Redwoods and Climate Change Initiative. She holds a PhD in Integrative Biology on the impacts of fog on coast redwood forest flora from the University of California,...

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