Elizabeth Britton and the Curly-Grass Fern

By Regina M. Vitiello

May 10 2019

Tucked away in an office drawer of NYBG’s Fern Curator, Robbin Moran, there is a charming antique slide box. The only hint of this slide box’s significance is a pencil signature in the upper right corner, “E. G. Knight 1882.” E. G. Knight is the maiden name of one of the New York Botanical Garden’s founders, Elizabeth Gertrude Knight Britton. Amongst many scientific accomplishments, Britton was the first woman to edit a scientific journal—the Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club.

Five of the top slides in the case are marked, “Schizaea pusilla, 3 July 1900 Forked River New Jersey.” Schizaea pusilla, curly-grass fern, was first discovered in 1805 in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. In 1879, Elizabeth discovered curly-grass fern in Nova Scotia (600 miles north of the Pine Barrens) which confirmed this species presence in Canada and boosted her reputation in the botanical community.

In a Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 1901 paper, Britton details her study of this unusual little fern and demonstrates its unique morphology through several illustrative plates. Preserved in the slides at the top of box is the fern that inspired the article, the illustrations, and the botanist, Elizabeth Britton.

A Closer Look

Digitization of NYBG Steere Herbarium fern specimens and the writing of this story made possible through a National Science Foundation digitization grant (award #1802305). Digitization TCN: Collaborative Research: The Pteridological Collections Consortium: An integrative approach to pteridophyte diversity over the last 420 million years

Britton, E. G. 1896a. How I found Schizaea pusilla. Linnaean Fern Bulletin 4: 17-19.

Britton, E. G. 1896b. Rediscovery of Schizaea pusilla in Newfoundland. Linnaean Fern Bulletin 4: 62-63.

Britton, E. G. & A. Taylor. 1901. Life history of Schizaea pusilla. Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 28: 1-19, + 6 plates. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2478391 

Moran, R. 2007. Elizabeth and the Curly-Grass Fern. Fiddlehead Forum 34: 12-16. Available at [pdf]: