Fern with pink flowers

What Are Ferns?

Ferns are plants that do not have flowers. Ferns generally reproduce by producing spores. Similar to flowering plants, ferns have roots, stems and leaves. However, unlike flowering plants, ferns do not have flowers or seeds; instead, they usually reproduce sexually by tiny spores or sometimes can reproduce vegetatively, as exemplified by the walking fern.

In the past, ferns had been loosely grouped with other spore-bearing vascular plants, often called “fern allies”. Recent genetic studies reveal surprises about the relationships among ferns and fern allies. First, ferns appear to be closely related to the horsetails. In fact, horsetails are now grouped as ferns. Second, plants commonly called “fern allies”, club-mosses and quillworts, are not at all related to the ferns. General relationships among members of the plant kingdom are shown in the diagram below.

Walking fern (Asplenium rhizophyllum) growing on a mossy rock face in eastern Tennessee. This fern can reproduce vegetatively. Note the little fernlets growing at the tips of the elongated fern fronds. Photo by Kris Light.

A cladogram showing the general relationships among members of the plant kingdom.

River horsetail, Equisetum fluviatile, growing in a streamlet near Girdwood, Alaska, Chugach National Forest. Eleven of the 15 species of horsetails occur in North America. During the Coal Age, the ancestors of horsetails grew to the size of trees.

Common club-moss, Lycopodium clavatum, growing in a muskeg in Prince William Sound, Alaska, Chugach National Forest.

Quillworts

Western quillwort, Isoetes occidentalis, growing in a shallow lake on Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, Tongass National Forest.

Quillworts are the only descendents of trees that dominated the swampy forests during the Coal Age, about 320 million years ago. Quillworts are small plants that generally grow in shallow water. About 25 species grow in North America.

The western quillwort image shows the plant rooted in the mud at the bottom of a shallow lake (left). Note the simple quill-like leaves emerging from the mud.

This image also shows the entire plant floating on the surface of the lake (right). The bases of the leaves are pale because they were buried in the mud and did not receive sunlight.

Fern Success Stories

The Big Search for Tiny Ferns

Hymenophyllum wrightii gametophytes growing in a tangled clump on rotting wood. Photo by Aaron Duffy.

For many years, Forest Service botanists have been interested in finding an elusive plant called Wright’s filmy fern (Hymenophyllum wrightii) in the Alaska Region. The fern was designated by the Regional Forester as an Alaska Region Sensitive Species in 1994 because of its apparent rarity. However, interest in the plant began several decades earlier.

Read more about the big search for tiny ferns…

Botrychium Treasure Hunts – November 2011

On August 6 and August 20, 2011, members of the Nevada Native Plant Society visited two spring sites in the Spring Mountains, Clark County, Nevada, to search for and, hopefully, learn how to identify Botrychium species. Botrychiums, also known as moonworts, belong to the Ophioglossaceae, an ancient family of plants distantly related to modern ferns.

Read more about Botrychium Treasure Hunts…

Ferns, Folklore, and Fiddleheads

Ferns are fascinating! This ancient family of plants—which lived BEFORE dinosaurs walked the Earth—has a prominent place in folklore and legend. Discover fern symbolism, healing powers, growing tips, and even recipes for cooking the young fiddlehead fern!

What Are Fiddleheads?

In April, young ferns sprout from wet soil here in New Hampshire, appearing bright green against the decaying leaves. These are the fiddleheads, so-called because the very tops—furled tight when young—look like the tuning end of a fiddle.

Fiddlehead ferns are the popular name for Ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) which grow in central and eastern North America. Ferns require liquid water to reproduce, so you’ll often find them near streams and moist, forested areas.

Many Native American tribes would harvest fiddleheads, and they are even commercially harvested in the spring in Canada and New England.

Photo: “Ostrich Fern/ Fiddleheads” by Almanac reader Diane Peck

Cooking With Fiddleheads

Have you ever eaten fiddleheads? Many readers say it tastes like a cross between asparagus, baby spinach, and artichoke. It has a grassy, spring-y flavor with a touch of nuttiness. Fiddleheads are a very healthy green tonic, packed with antioxidants, omega acids, iron, and fiber.

Caution: In North America, it’s only the ostrich variety that is harvested; it grows in central and eastern part of North America. Fiddleheads must be picked before the fronds open to be edible. Each fern plant will produce several tops that turn into fronds. It’s best to take only half the tops per plant so they grow back. If you aren’t clear on how to forage, visit your local green grocer. They’re only available fresh or a few weeks in springtime, but they’re also sold frozen and canned.

Many people in this area cook the young fiddleheads for an asparagus-like treat. They need to be cooked thoroughly before eating. Although they’re not identified as toxic, it’s a safe precaution. Remove the husk, wash three times in cold water, and then either boil for 15 minutes or steam lightly in a steam basket for 10 to 12 minutes, just until tender crisp.

For more directions on how to cook, see the below fiddleheads recipes from the Almanac archives:

Spring Fiddleheads
Dijon Fiddleheads
Trout and Fiddleheads
Fiddleheads Mimosa
River Catfish With Fiddleheads and Potatoes
Risotto With Fiddleheads and Morels
Fiddlehead Soup (see photo below)

A Little Fern History

Ferns first show up in fossil records from a time over 100 million years BEFORE dinosaurs walked the Earth. In fact, ferns grew before flowering plants existed. There are thousands of species from those which are a few inches tall to others which resemble trees.

Long ago, people couldn’t explain how ferns reproduced since they lack flowers or seeds. Fern seeds were thought to make one invisible!

Today we know that ferns truly don’t have flowers or seeds. How do they reproduce? They have “spores.” With sunlight and photosynthesis, the spores grow into what is called gametes which are able to fertilize the sperm and start to move it into the fern plant. This is completely different than anything that happens with any other sort of flower! No wonder people were confused.

It was this mystery of the non-flowering fern that led to folklore about mystical flowers as seeds.


Photo: “Glowing Fern” by Almanac reader Karin Shipman

Midsummer Eve Lore

During the Middle Ages, ferns were thought to flower and produce seed only once a year—at midnight on St. John’s Eve (June 23) prior Midsummer’s Day. Traditionally, this was a celebration accompanying the summer solstice.

  • Since the seeds couldn’t be seen, they were believed to be invisible. According to lore, they could only be found once a year on St. John’s Eve (June 23), also called Midsummer Eve. The possessor of these “seeds” could understand the language of birds, find buried treasure, and have the strength of forty men.
  • This folklore is also intertwined with Midsummer Day (June 24); bathing in the dew on this morning was said to bring youthful glow and healing.

Ferns for Healing

Historically, ferns have been an important source of medicine for various ailments, especially for ancient tribes.

  • The spores on the underside of the fern provide relief to the stinging nettle (which is often nearby).
  • When boiled in oil or fat, Ophioglossum vulgatum has been used for wounds and to reduce inflammation.

  • A poultice or lotion made from the roots of Botrychium. virginianum has been applied to snakebites, bruises, cuts and sores in the Himalayas.

  • The powdered rhizomes of Adiantum lunulatum has been used as an antidote to snakebite in India.

  • Extract of fresh leaves of Nephrolepis cordifolia has been used to stop bleeding of cuts and help in blood coagulation.

  • The paste of the leaf of O. reticulatum has been applied to the forehead to get rid of headache.

  • Filtered water extract of rhizome of Abacopteris multilineata has been used for stomach pains.

Fern Symbolism

The ancient fern has a history rich in symbolism. As mentioned above, ferns were seen as good luck, often for new lovers. The fern symbolizes eternal youth.

  • To the indigenous Maori of New Zealand, the fern represented new life and new beginnings.
  • To the Japanese, the fern symbolizes family and the hope for future generations.
  • According to Victorians, the fern symbolized humility and sincerity. .

People love ferns, whether they grow them in their yard or as houseplants.

If your yard has indirect sunlight and moist soil, consider growing ferns outdoors. They are one of the more deer-resistant plants, too. This page includes a list of native ferns in North America.

As houseplants, common ferns are the Boston Fern and the Staghorn Ferns.

  • Boston ferns grow well with temperatures that are 68 to 75 degrees F during the day and 50 to 69 degrees F at night. They require humidity between 50 and 80 percent, and they do not like drafts. Boston ferns stop growing from fall to winter and during this dormant stage like the temperature to be 50 degrees, minimal watering (the soil should be barely moist), and no fertilizer. During the winter, mist the leaves twice a day. The fern’s root system can occupy up to three quarters of the solid space in the pot without harm, and this plant does not like to be repotted.
  • Staghorn ferns are often presented as gifts. They can not be planted in ordinary potting soil, so that’s the first thing to check. They should be placed on a piece of bark or (unreated) wood board. Place a few handfuls of damp sphagnum moss or orchid mix on the board and place the fern on top so that the flat round basal fronds are touching the board. Firmly secure the fern to the board with twine, a thin wire, or fishing line. (The fern will attach itself to the wood eventually.) To water staghorn fern, soak the entire arrangement in a bucket or sink. Keep the fern in the shade and water daily until it takes hold of the wood. Feed every two weeks year-round with a balanced liquid fertilizer diluted by half.

I hope you discovered something new about the humble fern.

Do you have ferns in your area or do you grow ferns? Please share your thoughts on ferns—and folklore!

Want a plant that blooms in late spring and early summer that isn’t ordinarily seen in most flower beds or landscapes? Try a “Flowering fern” as an attention getter!

Hardy gloxinia, (Incarvillea delavayi), A.K.A “Flowering fern.” Photo credit: The Garden Helper

If you categorize flowering ferns with pigs flying, you’re in the right direction as ferns don’t “flower” in the traditional sense. However, if someone described the foliage as “fern-like”, that would be accurate.

Intrigued? I was on first hearing of the plant, especially as the person describing it created a delightful picture in my mind. A little reading in books and online sites revealed the truth; it IS attractive; a perennial in the Bignoniaceae family that may offer a bit of challenge for gardeners in the southeast with our hot/humid summers.

Also known as Hardy gloxinia, Incarvillea delavayi is native to Asia, with large, trumpet-shaped rosy purple flowers on 12-24” stalks, and described by some as pleasantly fragrant. Attractive to bees, butterflies and birds, it is suitable for containers or borders and beds. While needing sun, Hardy gloxinia will appreciate light shade during our summer afternoons.

Introduced to Europe in the mid-1800s by two Jesuit missionaries, the plant known as Chinese Trumpet flower was popular in English gardens for many years before falling out of favor with gardeners.

For 21st century gardens, additional blooms can be encouraged by deadheading after the first flush, offering an opportunity for more passersby to stop and inquire about that unusual “flowering fern!”

By Sallie Lee, Urban Regional Extension Agent, Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Contact Sallie at [email protected]

The Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES) operates as the primary outreach organization for the land-grant functions of Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities. ACES is committed to affirmative action, equal opportunity and the diversity of its workforce. Educational programs of ACES serve all people regardless of race, color, age, sex, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or national origin.

How to Plant Ferns

Plant fern plants in lightly shaded to fully shaded areas. They prefer moist, rich humus soil with a slightly acid pH (5.3 to 5.5 pH range). Sphagnum peat moss is good to add to the soil for holding moisture and will add some acid to the soil as it decomposes. Aged compost mix and aged manure mix are also good soil building additions.

The smaller ferns, such as Maidenhair fern, can be spaced about 18 to 24 inches apart. The larger growing Ostrich, Christmas and Royal Ferns grow much larger and should be planted no closer than 24 inches apart.

Planting Container Grown Ferns –

Dig holes 8 to 14 inches wide and approximately 12 to 14 inches deep or at least several inches deeper and wider than the container the plants are being grown in. Pour water into the hole until it is about 2 inches deep in the hole. Allow the water to be soaked into the soil. While water is being soaked in, tap the container bottom on the ground and cupping the base of the plant and top of container with one hand, tip the container completely over. Gently pry the plants root system out of the pot.

Holding the root system, with soil, in both hands firmly, gently pull the bottom of the root system as though to tear the bottom apart. Don’t pull the root system apart, only loosen it up and allow the roots to stretch. Sometimes newly grown roots will twist and turn in the pot, just comb through them with your fingers to straighten them out. Hold the plant steady at the base of the trunk slightly above the ground level over the hole. Begin pulling soil into the hole to fill in the areas around the root system of the plant lightly pressing with every few inches.

Once the hole is filled with soil around the root system, water the plant again about the same amount as it took to fill up to 2 inches of the hole. (Water amount will vary with conditions) The soil around the base of the plant may sink in and you will need to apply more soil and lightly press down. Then apply 2 to 3 inches of shredded bark mulch or aged compost mix forming a well or doughnut around the base of each plant.

For the first month, water plant every 2 to 3 days adjusting for deep rainfall days. Gradually phase into watering less and less allowing the plant to stress for itself to find moisture. You will need to water more frequently during the hottest part of summer, especially during drought conditions. It takes approximately 3 to 6 weeks for container plants to establish and begin putting on newer roots.

Top with a good layer of mulch (shredded bark mulch, aged compost or aged manure mix) or a light layer of straw for added moisture and to keep the ground cool. Water as needed to keep the soil moist. As the ground warms in late spring, the fronds will begin sprouting.

Planting Bare Root Ferns –

Trying to figure out which end of the tuber is up can be daunting. Sometimes the tip is visible on the top portion and other times there will be root hairs extending from the bottom. If in doubt, the tuber can be planted in a sideways position without affecting future growth.

The top of the tuber should be approximately 1 to 2 inches below the top of the ground. Cover lightly with aged compost mix to keep the ground cool and moist. Soil should be kept lightly moist (not wet or damp) for the fern to put on new growth. When planting tubers late in the growing season, such as late summer, often they will not put on any new top growth until the following spring. The ferns will grow larger each year until they top out in size about the 4th year.

Cutting the fall die back to the ground and applying a fresh layer of mulch or straw will help to protect the fern tubers from popping out of the ground over winter freeze and thaw cycles as well as from squirrels or other critters digging up the bulbs for winter food.

Visit our Garden Ideas page for more shade garden plants.

Growing Ferns

Growing Ferns in the Garden

Indispensable for shady areas, these delicate plants make the hottest summer day seem cooler. Great variety exists in form and size, giving the creative gardener many planting options. Most Ferns are slow growing and can take several years to reach their mature size, which varies greatly between varieties.

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Light/Watering: All Ferns thrive in light to heavy shade. A few, such as Lady Ferns (Athyrium filix-femina) will grow in full sun in the North, provided the planting site is damp. Water Ferns regularly if rain is not sufficient, and do not let the soil get completely dry. A 2″ thick mulch of composted leaves or pine needles will help keep roots cool and damp.

Fertilizer/Soil and pH: Ferns prefer soils high in organic matter that are well-drained but do not dry out. Most will tolerate poor soils and a pH of 4 to 7; Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum) prefers a more alkaline soil between pH 7 to 8, but will grow at a lower pH. Apply fertilizer in spring, just after new growth has begun. Ferns are very sensitive to fertilizers; use a slow-release fertilizer when new growth appears in early spring. For initial planting of bareroot plants, lay the mat formers (Adiantum, Athyrium, Dennstaedtia, and Dryopteris) with buds and old fronds facing up in a shallow hole and cover with an inch of soil. Plant bareroot crown-formers (Matteuccia, Osmunda, Phyllitis, and Polystichum) with the growing tips just barely showing through the soil surface. Ferns are notoriously slow to send up new growth after planting, but good things come to those who wait.

Pests/Diseases: None serious enough to worry about, other than the occasional slug attack. Fight back with bait or diatomaceous earth sprinkled around the base of the fronds.

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Tips for Growing Garden Ferns

Companions: Ferns are lovely with other shade-lovers such as Alchemilla, Brunnera (False Forget-me-not), Dicentra (Bleeding Heart), Hosta, Mertensia (Virginia Bluebells), Phlox divaricata, Pulmonaria (Lungwort), Tiarella (Foam Flower), and Viola. They add fabulous texture to woodlands and landscape plantings. Ferns are deer-resistant, so they make an excellent choice for a woodland garden where deer are a problem.

Dividing/Transplanting: When Fern fronds appear to be smaller, or the clump has a bare center, it is time to divide. Some Ferns form crowns while others grow as mats of fibrous roots. Dig up the whole clump and take 6″-square pieces from the most vigorous growth. Replant at the original depth and water well.

Late Season Tips for Garden Ferns

End-of-Season Care: Cut fronds back after a killing frost, and apply a winter mulch of salt marsh hay or evergreen boughs to help prevent winter heaving.

Calendar of Care for Garden Ferns

Early Spring: Divide or transplant as soon as new growth appears, and water well if it is unseasonably dry, as plants prefer an evenly moist soil. Fertilize gently with a slow-release fertilizer or use an organic mulch. Recently planted Ferns may be slow to appear, but be patient.

Mid-Spring: Water consistently if rainfall is not sufficient to keep soil moist. Apply a 2″ thick mulch of composted leaves or pine needles.

Late Spring: Watch for slug or snail damage and treat as necessary.

Summer: Continue regular watering as needed to maintain soil moisture.

Fall: Cut foliage back to soil level when it dies back after a heavy frost. When the ground freezes, mulch to protect plants from heaving out of the soil in winter.

Growing Ferns as Houseplants

Tropical Ferns are splendid garden plants where nighttime temperatures are above 60°F, and they make excellent houseplants as well. They require only filtered light and moderate humidity to grow well indoors.

Light: Tropical Ferns grow best in filtered or indirect light. An east- or north-facing window is ideal.

Humidity: Most houseplants are native to tropical or subtropical regions of the world, where relative humidity is typically very high. They suffer in the dry air produced by furnaces and woodstoves. The best way to increase the humidity around your plants is to run a humidifier nearby. You can also set plants in trays filled with pebbles or gravel. Add water to a level just below the tops of the pebbles (if the potting mix in the pots comes in contact with the water, the mix will draw water into the pot, which will cause the mix to become saturated, eventually leading to rot). Refill trays frequently to replace water lost through evaporation. (Our Humiditrays perform the same function without the need for pebbles.)

Fertilizer: During the growing season (generally April into September) fertilize potted plants once a month using a houseplant formula mixed at 1/2 strength. Withhold fertilizer in fall and winter, when most plants rest.

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