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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Osmunda regalis, from Tail to Beak

Originally published on Photoblog by Gethin Thomas OCTOBER. 23, 2020

[79-365] 23rd. October 2020- If I didn't tell you the common name for this fern was The Royal Fern you could probably assume something of the sort with a regalis sounding name like that. My specimen is currently quite young so it is more of a Prince George than a Prince Charles. I am hoping that next year it will spring into action with some full size foliage. It also produces plumes which go a rusty colour.

Or as the official types put it. O. regalis is a robust deciduous fern forming a large clump of bipinnate fronds to 2.5m in height, bearing rusty-brown spore-bearing pinnae at the tips; foliage turns attractive red-brown in autumn.

Now did you know what pinnae were? No, but I bet you knew what plumes were. It looks like I did get the rusty bit right though, although this little one is plumeless so you will have to wait until next year for plumes.

The name Osmunda possibly derives from Osmunder, a Saxon name for the god Thor. The name "royal fern" derives from its being one of the largest and most imposing European ferns. The name has been qualified as "old world royal fern" in some American literature to distinguish it from the closely related American royal fern, O. spectabilis. However this terminology is not found in British literature.

American royalty. It must be native to those holly woods of California.

Plume is my word of the day, because it is one of those words that trip off the tongue without much thought, but when you keep saying it, it starts to sound strange or even bizarre. Say it several times out loud, emphasising the oooo sound and see what I mean.

Gotcha! Everyone nearby is now giving you strange looks, right? Plume will take us down a convoluted confusion of feathery flummery paths to pens and nibs.

Plume- a long, soft feather or arrangement of feathers used by a bird for display or worn by a person for ornament. A long cloud of smoke or vapour resembling a feather as it spreads from its point of origin.

The bird concerned probably had every intention of keeping it's plume in it's tail before it ended up in some hat shop. In fact I believe at some point Ostriches were even farmed for their feathers needed for the hat trade, which was an improvement on hunting them down.

Due to the value of ostrich feathers some canny colonial farmers at the Cape in South Africa saw an opportunity. If the ostrich could be domesticated and farmed they would have a ready supply of feathers which could be plucked from the bird without harming it and regrow anew. The first experiments began in the region of Oudtshoorn and by 1865 they had found some success with 80 domesticated birds.

The problem was the safe rearing of ostrich chicks — the ostriches tended to get spooked and destroy their own eggs, (scrambling any chance of success) or simply fail to incubate them properly, leading to a difficulty in expanding the number of domesticated ostriches. This problem was solved in 1869 when Arthur Douglass, a pioneering ostrich farmer and the first to list ostrich farming as his sole occupation, invented the ostrich incubator.

Invented is probably a bit of a grand word for making a large warm box, but to be fair to old Arthur he may well have prevented the Ostrich becoming extinct in the process.

The old French word for pen was plume as the earliest writing implements were feathers or as we called them in English Quills. So the French wrote with a Plume and we Brits used a Quill pen. To confuse things further a Quill in French is a Penne. The English word Quill comes from the German. So was a Quill pen a German French Pen pen? Such is the mystery of words and their origins.

In exasperation about all this quillery, plumery, pennery the British thought, let's just start from scratch. Because you scratched the paper with the quill and soon you would scratch the paper with a metal nib. As the Industrial Revolution was now well under way, they thought let's stop writing with bits of dead birds and try and find something more reliable.

The best quills were usually made from goose, swan, and later turkey feathers. Quills went into decline after the invention of the metal pen, production beginning in Great Britain as early as 1822 by John Mitchell of Birmingham.

The Birmingham pen trade evolved in the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter and its surrounding area in the 19th century; for many years, the city was the centre of the world's pen trade, with most dip pens being produced there. At the height of the Jewellery Quarter's operations, there were about 100 pen factories, which employed around 8,000 skilled craftspeople.

The trade also pioneered craftsmanship, manufacturing processes and provided employment opportunities especially for women, who constituted more than 70% of the workforce. At its peak, there were about 100,000 varieties of pens manufactured in Birmingham. By the 1850s, Birmingham existed as a world centre for steel pen and steel nib manufacture; more than half the steel-nib pens manufactured in the world were made in Birmingham. Thousands of skilled craftsmen and women were employed in the industry. Many new manufacturing techniques were perfected in Birmingham, enabling the city's factories to mass-produce their pens cheaply and efficiently. These were sold worldwide to many who previously could not afford to write, thus encouraging the development of education and literacy.

As you can imagine, with manufacturing methods what they were back then and producing more than half the words pen nibs, there was many a plume of smoke over the booming city. The modern industrialised pen nib takes us neatly back to birds again with the word nib being an old word for birds beaks. So we went from tail to beak in a funny sort of way, plume to nib.

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