Exploring The Last Green Valley: Forest ferns beautiful and fascinating plants
“Truly, out of the darkness, where forever the stems of our little northern ferns are hid, the frond reaches up an eager hand for the blessed sunlight.”
From “An Almanac for Moderns,” by Donald Culross Peattie
A summertime walk in the woods reveals large patches of ferns growing on shaded trails, along edges of stonewalls and under the forest canopy of trees. These bright green, wild plants seem to be everywhere this year, likely due to the wet spring, which favored the early growth of many of our wildflowers and plants.
I always enjoy seeing ferns during my forest rambles. Some grow in clumps of several stems and others grow in huge patches resembling green islands dotting the forest floor. l like to brush my hands over the soft tops as I walk past, touching nature free of thorn and tangle.
Ferns are among the most primitive of plants and, according to fossil records, thrived on earth more than 300 million years ago. Ferns were dominant during the age of dinosaurs, along with mosses, lichens and liverworts. Up to 50-feet tall with six-foot long leaves and thick trunks they were found from the equator to the poles.
They evolved before bees, flowers or fruits and to this day still reproduce the ancient way by spores instead of seeds. The spores look like tiny dots and are usually found under the leaves or along the stems of the plant. When they become airborne, they can travel for miles, and when they land, with the right conditions, a tiny one-celled body called a prothallus begins to grow. From this the fern will develop.
There are roughly 75 species of fern in New England, with about a dozen of them common. They are a conspicuous component to the understory of forests and along streams, swamps and the edges of clearings. Some are evergreen and provide touches of green during the snowy winter season. Here is a sampling of our most common ferns:
- Northern Lady Fern is common throughout New England. It grows in circular clumps with fronds up to three feet tall.
- Christmas Fern is common in forests, especially around damp rocky hillsides. This fern gets its name since it is an evergreen variety that stays green though winter.
- Sensitive Fern is widespread and common and gets its name because the green fronds wither and turn brown at the first frost. They are found in dense colonies along the edges of wet woods, swamps and marshes. I have several rooted along the sunny wall of my barn.
- Bracken Fern is common in dry woodlands and clearings in areas of poor soil. It is large with triangular-shaped fronds that grow three to five feet tall.
- Hay-scented Fern gets its name due to the smell of freshly mowed hay when the leaves are crushed. It grows in clearings in sunlight and partial shade. Each blade tapers to a fine point and is soft to the touch.
- Royal Fern can stand more than five feet tall and is found in wet woods, swamps and edges of marshes. It is found around the world and common in New England.
- Interrupted Fern grows along woodland edges, meadows and edges of swamps. Growing in clumps with fronds up to five feet tall, it gets its name due to the fact the fronds are “interrupted” in the middle by clusters of spores.
- Cinnamon Fern is very distinctive with fronds standing five feet tall. The fertile fronds appear first in spring and by midsummer they wither and turn a bright cinnamon-brown color.
- Common Polypody Fern is also an evergreen fern like the Christmas Fern. It grows along cliffs and rocks in cool shady locations.
- Ostrich Fern is less common in our region, but very distinctive with long graceful fronds that suggest shape of an ostrich feather. They grow in dense colonies along edges of wet woods, swamps and marshes.
You have probably heard of the fiddlehead and may have seen them at a farmers market in the early spring or even, perhaps, eaten them. Fiddleheads are the coiled frond of the fern when it first emerges from the earth. It gets its name because they look just like the carved head of a fiddle. They are considered a delicacy and are cooked much the same way you would asparagus. There a few species that are preferred for cooking as a fiddlehead, including ostrich, bracken and cinnamon ferns.
Some species do not taste good when cooked, especially the fiddlehead of the interrupted fern. It’s important to note there are many expert foragers who do not pick wild fiddleheads for eating. Those who do study the safe-to-eat varieties and positively identify them and their exact location the summer before returning the next spring to pick them.
If you’re looking for information about ferns online, I highly recommend the Connecticut Botanical Society website with an extensive list of common species in Connecticut. Here you’ll find not just information on the distinct features of each type of fern found in the state but also photographs of the fully grown plant, in fiddlehead stage when it first emerges from the ground, and in some examples pictures of the spores and their location on the fronds. Check it out at: https://www.ct-botanical-society.org/index/view/fernchart
There are a handful of handy guidebooks to ferns in New England. If you’re looking for a guide to take into the field the “Peterson Guide to Ferns” is a good option. You might also consider getting “Northeast Ferns: A Guide to Ferns and Fern Relatives of Northeastern United States,” by Steve Chadde.
Every time I venture out into forests and fields, I find something new to spark my interest. Next time I see ferns I am going to check to see if I can spot the spores along the back side of the fronds. I’ll try to identify the species and need to remember to bring my handy guidebook to help. They are so graceful and worthy of our attention, study and understanding.
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. Our region is teeming with flora and fauna — some of which even existed during the age of dinosaurs. I hope you’ll join me and others as we care for it, enjoy it and pass it on.
Information for this column was gleaned from the “Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of New England,” by Ken and Kimberly Kaufman, “The Outside Story Volume I, Seeing Green in Winter,” by Carrie Chandler, “A Field Guide to Your Own Back Yard,” by John Hansom Mitchell, “Nature’s Everyday Mysteries,” by Sy Montgomery, and the Connecticut Botanical Society website.
Bill Reid is the chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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