Ferns are special plants. Older than dirt, mysteriously reproducing without flowers while thriving in shade, seemingly bereft of the sunshine that most plants seek, they bring a quiet beauty to a woodland area. Emerging fern fronds appear after winter as tightly coiled “fiddleheads”. The intricately fashioned fiddleheads encourage us to stop and examine their beauty in this early moment of spring.
Many different ferns are found naturally in Georgia. In the metro Atlanta area alone, I have found more than 20 different ferns in my small travels. Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is one of the most common and one of the few evergreen ones. It would be gorgeous in my woods all winter if the deer wouldn’t take to sleeping on it. The fuzzy golden knobs of new growth are formed at the end of the year, and they wait quietly at ground level, protected by the previous year’s fronds.
The other common evergreen fern is Ebony Spleenwort (Asplenium platyneuron), a very petite and upright fern with a dark brown or black rachis (the rachis is the midrib of the fern blade). When I first began to notice the different ferns, I thought that Ebony Spleenwort ferns were baby Christmas ferns because they were small and usually found near Christmas ferns. Ebony Spleenwort can be remarkably tolerant of sun – we sometimes find them in the edges of old fields. Both types of ferns are tolerant of drier conditions than most ferns.
A couple of other fairly common ferns are Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina) and New York Fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis). In the wild we often find them near each other on moist streamsides. New York Fern is an especially good spreader, and the soft, dried fronds are sometimes used by birds to build nests. A favorite identification trick to distinguish these two is to look at the bottom area of the frond: if the pinnae (the smaller “leaves” on the stem) taper off until they are small at the bottom, it is a New York Fern; we like to say that New Yorkers burn the candle at both ends. Lady Fern pinnae are much wider at the bottom; it also comes in two forms: red stemmed and green stemmed. Here is an emerging frond from a red stemmed one.
By the way, if you are unfamiliar with the unique terminology associated with the parts of a fern, click here for a good picture with details.
The maidenhair ferns are a beautiful and unusual find in the woods. Northern Maidenhair (Adiantum pedatum) is the one we usually see. Transplanted ones thrive in my yard – I have not had as much luck with the Southern Maidenhair (Adiantum capillus-veneris) and I suspect my soil conditions are not right. The twisty, curly fiddleheads are almost cartoonish in form but always unfurl beautifully:
hexagonoptera). You would think I’d stood on my head to take this picture:
Many ferns have their spores on the back of the frond (or on the back of some of the fronds); these are the parts that are capable of developing into new ferns. The ferns I have described so far have this arrangement. This site linked here has great explanations and pictures about how ferns grow from spores.
However, some ferns create separate “fertile fronds” that only contain the spores and look quite different from the non-fertile fronds. Netted Chain Fern (Woodwardia areolata) is one of them and so are Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis), Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) and Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), all of which thrive in wet conditions in my area.
Grape ferns are very petite ferns, and there are plenty of other small ones in Georgia. Brittle Fern (Cystopteris protrusa) is a tiny, delicate looking fern. Other small ferns include Rock Cap Fern (Polypodium virginianum) and the very similar looking Resurrection Fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides), show here in it’s “dry” form in between rains. Resurrection Fern often grows on trees, especially big, wide oak branches.
Ferns can be found in sunnier conditions – one of my favorites in the garden is Southern Shield Fern, look for it by the scientific name as this one has many common names (Thelypteris kunthii). This big, lush fern grows to about 36 inches tall and is happy to grow in full sun until about 1 pm (longer if there is adequate moisture). In my old yard, spores would fall down into a mossy area and I had dozens of babies to share with other people; you can also divide the creeping rhizomes as you might do for other ferns.
Other sun-tolerant and even xeric ferns are being given more attention these days. Be sure to visit the Botanical Gardens at Georgia Perimeter College in Decatur to see the unusual native ferns that they grow.