Ferns are found in many of our forests, especially those that have moist conditions. There are nearly 12,000 species of ferns found throughout the world except in polar regions. Ferns are unusual plants in that they don’t flower or produce a seed.
Instead ferns reproduce from spores or vegetatively by sending out shoots from their rhizomes. The parent plant can eject millions of spores from the underside of each frond. If one of these spores lands in suitable conditions, a small heart-shaped plant, the prothallus, develops.
Once this develops sufficiently, fertilization takes place and a small sporophyte develops that enlarges into the mature fern. This type of development is known as a bigenerational life cycle. Ferns appeared after flowering plants, and they are somewhat unique in that they have not evolved much over time.
The fern has body parts that are somewhat similar to flowering plants: the leaf of the fern is called the frond, the stem of the fern is the rhizome, and ferns also have roots. Most ferns need abundant moisture and will dry out if exposed to arid conditions for very long.
Most ferns grow in the shade, but others can do fine in direct sunlight as long as the ground remains moist. Ferns are sometimes categorized by their growth pattern, as either a plant that develops distinct clumps or a plant that forms dense colonies. Those ferns that form dense colonies often reproduce aggressively from rhizomes.
Some of the more common ferns found in our woodlands include:
Christmas fern: The Christmas fern is an evergreen so you can find it growing in the woods during the winter. Numerous butterfly species utilize this fern for food or cover during the year. The Christmas fern likes shady moist areas and is often found in mixed hardwood stands in the mountainous sections of the county. The Christmas fern is evergreen and can be found in the woods during winter. (Courtesy photo)
Hay-scented fern: The hay-scented fern gets its name from the smell of hay that is emitted if a section of the frond is crushed between the fingers. This fern likes drier sites that are acidic in pH. The hay-scented fern is often found in oak forests. This fern can form dense colonies; it is one of the few plants that deer do not eat. It also exhibits allopathic properties that can poison nearby plants. In addition, rodents will live in dense groves. The combination of allopathy, harboring seed-eating rodents, and dense shade will preclude most other plants from becoming established. This is an example of a native species that has invasive properties, especially where the deer herd is large. Hay-scented fern has become problematic in Pennsylvania and other places where the deer herd is high and the acidic conditions prevail.
Ebony Spleenwort fern: This fern can be found in a wide range of soils, acid or basic in pH. The fern gets its name from the rachis that has a dark reddish brown color. The fern reproduces mostly by spores and is noninvasive. The spleenwort has fertile fronds that stand erect and sterile fronds that lie next to the ground. The fertile fronds die back in the winter, while the sterile fronds are evergreen.
Cinnamon fern: This fern gets its name from the fronds that get a reddish, cinnamon color during the summer. This fern is deciduous in the northern part of its range. The cinnamon fern needs a lot of moisture and is often found in wetlands. Cinnamon fern can form dense mats in wetland areas. Cinnamon fern.
Maidenhair fern: Maidenhair ferns are a clumping fern that are found in humus-rich soils. This fern is deciduous in the northern part of its range. The maidenhair fern gets it name from the delicate look of the leaves.
Sensitive fern: This fern is found in swampy woods areas and on the banks of streams and rivers. The sensitive fern is a good indicator of a wetland. The green leafy part of the plant is sterile, while the fertile part of the plant is reddish brown and the spores are clustered like beads or grapes on a vine.
Article by Frederick County Forest Conservancy District Board
Nature Note for 7/28/2019