Fern habitats


Fern habitats

Fern habitats

Maidenhair spleenwort Asplenuim trichomanes © Ita McCobb

Since they are probably the most ancient plant on Earth, ferns have their habitat preferences well and truly sorted!

Fern fronds are among the most elegant leaves of any plant and ferns’ choice of habitat, way of reproduction and overall lifestyle are among the most fascinating. So fascinating in fact that a mania for fern collecting and anything fern related overtook the UK (and much of the world) in the second half of the 19th century. This craze became known as Pteridomania – from the Latin “Pteridus” meaning “Bracken”.

Besides the growing of evermore exotic ferns in both specially built humid greenhouses, bell jars and glass exhibition cases, there were many books written on the topic and many decorative objects for home and textiles carried fern-related designs.

This fascination for ferns came on the back of a growing interest in travel, discovering exotic plants and botany in general and, since a huge variety of ferns were abundant in most environments in the newly explored places of the world, they quickly attracted interest.

Even today, ferns can be found in most land and freshwater environments – carpeting forest floors, climbing up trees and growing against tree trunks and branches in the humid interior of rainforests. Undisturbed Tree fern varieties can also be found along the sides of streams and in damp gullies in many warm, humid environments.

You’ll find ferns on coastal sites, in the crevices of sea cliffs or wherever hard rock occurs. Different species of fern can also be seen along damp hillsides, fens, gorges, waterfall edges, wells and even on disused railway platforms!

Other than the Scottish lady-fern (Athyrium exile), which will grow at 1,000 m, only the very highest mountain tops seem to be devoid of ferns.

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Ferns in Alpine areas

In alpine areas you can find the often large, tufted, perennial Shield ferns (Polystichum) such as the Holly fern (Polystichum lonchitis) with its rigid, leathery, glossy fronds that can be found growing in mountainous areas on base-rich or chalky mountain rocks or in the shelter of large boulders or tussock-forming grasses in Summer, the Alpine lady-fern (Athyrium alpestre), the Mountain male-fern (Dryopteris oreades) that prefer to live on rocks and scree (small loose stones that cover a mountain slope) in alpine areas and the Mountain bladder-fern (Cystopteris Montana) that prefers moist, base-rich mountain rocks or gullies and of course not forgetting the tufted, small alpine Woodsia ferns; Oblong woodsia (Woodsia ilvensis) and Alpine woodsia (Woodsia alpina).

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Ferns on Coastlines

While not many ferns can survive the onslaught of salt spray and the strong winds that are found at coastal sites, a few ferns have developed natural protection to these elements such as often being covered in hairs or scales that protect against drying winds and intense sunlight.

Coastal ferns include some unusual ferns. There’s the tall Hay-scented buckler fern (Dryopteris aemula), lover of North-facing coastlines that gets its name from the scent given off by its dried fronds and then the rare Bladder-fern, Dickie’s fern (Cystopteris dickieana) found in only one deeply shaded sea cave.

The shelter-loving, delicate Maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus-vereis), the dune-loving Western polypody (Polypodies interjectum) and the small Adder’s-tongues (Small Adder’s-tongue and Least Adder’s-tongueOphioglossum azoricum and Ophioglossum lusitanicum respectively) can all be seen growing on coastal pathways.

On coastlines you’re also very likely to come across several species of Spleenwort such as the Soft shield fern (Polystichum setiferum) that grows up to 120 cm tall, the bright green fronded Lanceolate Spleenwort (Asplenium billotii) and the perfectly adapted Sea spleenwort (Asplenium marinum) that likes to grow on exposed cliff faces.

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Ferns on Disturbed ground

Bracken Pteridium aquilinum © Ita McCobb

Some ferns prefer disturbed ground. Typical of these is bracketed Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), which grows extensively in open country on heaths, moorland, open-woodland and neglected pastures, especially on acid, light soils. Bracken is encouraged by burning, which destroys other plants but not the deep rhizomes of Bracken.

Others include the Bat-wing or Water fern (Histiopteris incisa) of the South Pacific Islands and New Zealand’s Thousand-leaved fern (Hypolepis millefolium) that quickly colonizes exposed ground then just as quickly dies out when shaded by other species.

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Ferns in Forests

Hart's-tongue Phylitis scolopendrium © Ita McCobb

Damp, moist forests would seem ideal conditions for the growing of ferns, but even so, most wood-loving ferns are very particular where and in which type of forest they grow.

The unique, evergreen, single strap-shaped-leaved Spleenwort, Hart’s tongue (Phyllitis scolopendrium) prefers hilly woodland, whereas the Scaly male fern (Dryopteris affinis) prefers valley woodlands. While the Beech fern (Phegopteris connectilis) likes to live in moist woods, which also happens to be a favoured environment of beech trees!

Within the same family of ferns there can be subtle differences of habitat preference. The Broad buckler fern (Dryopteris dilatata) is happy with most woodland while its sister-fern the Northern buckler (Dryopteris expansa) prefers upland woods. The ostrich-feather-like fronds of the Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) are at home in moist peaty woods while its cousin the Lady fern (Athyrium felix-femina) will inhabit any moist environment including moist woodland.

Forests are the natural environment of the creeping-rhizomed Filmy ferns such as Wilson’s filmy fern (Hymenophyllum wilsonii) and the Tunbridge filmy fern (Hymenophyllum tunbrigense) – but this is because they like to grow on tree trunks and branches that are themselves growing in moist environments.

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Hard fern Blechnum spicant © Ita McCobb

Ferns in Grassland

While it is difficult to visualize ferns in open grassland, most of the usually tiny Adders’-tongue fern family (Ophioglossum), with their two-forked frond protecting a single-spiked adder’s tongue blade, are found growing there.

This species includes the 2 to 15 cm tall, dry grassland loving Moonwort (Botrychium lunaria), the 3 to 8 cm tall, dune-grassland loving Small adder’s-tongue (Ophioglossum azoricum) and the tiny, rocky-grassland loving Least adder’s-tongue (Ophioglossum lusitanicum).

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Ferns in Marsh fens/Wetlands

This is where one naturally expects to find ferns. Some of the larger fern species populate these very moist regions. Ferns such as the majestic Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis), which is happiest growing in the Norfolk Broads and Western Ireland, and the aptly named Marsh fern (Thelypteris thelypteroides) that loves having wet feet!

Then there is the rare Crested buckler fern (Dryopteris cristata) that is very picky about its environment, preferring to grow in the Sphagnum mossy areas of fenlands and among birch scrub-woodland. In contrast, the commoner Narrow buckler fern (Dryopteris carthusiana) is widespread in bogs, wetlands and fen woods.

An occasional visitor to open marshy places is the Lady fern (Athyrium felix-femina), which will inhabit most moist environments.

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Ferns on Moors and heaths

Male fern Dryopteris felix-mas © Ita McCobb

When walking on moorlands and heaths in southern England or near the western coastline of Europe the ferns you are most likely to see are the tufted-crowned Hard fern (Blechnum spicant), which is happiest in the acid soils found in these areas, along with the bracket-forming Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) that grows extensively in these areas.

Other ferns attracted to these types of acid and calcareous soils are the small Moonwort (Botrychium lunaria) and the Broad buckler fern (Dryopteris dilatata) – both mentioned previously.

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Unusual fern habitats

Common polypody Polypodium vulgare © Ita McCobb

As with most things in nature there are those ferns that grow in the most unusual places. Take the tiny aquatic Water fern (Azolla liculoides), which looks more like Duckweed than a fern and is widespread in freshwater ponds and ditches throughout the UK

On the subject of water, consider the Killarney filmy fern (Hymenophyllum speciosum) that rates the spray zone of waterfalls among its preferred environments or the Spleenwort Hart’s tongue (Phyllitis scolopendrium), which feels most at home on the inside walls of wells!

Speaking of walls ... there are several ferns that like to grow on walls – especially limestone walls; Ferns such as most of the Spleenworts – Forked spleenwort (Asplenium septentrionale), the delicate Maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes) and the Rustyback spleenwort (Ceterach of cinarum) – along with several of the amusingly named Polypodys such as Common polypody (Polypodies vulgare) and Western polypody (Polypodies interjectum).

And finally, let’s not forget the ever-creative Limestone fern (Gymnocarpium robertianium) that likes to make its home on disused railway platforms!

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References: Botany for gardeners, Brian Capon, Third edition, Timber Press; Colour Identification Guide to the Grasses, Sedges, Rushes and Ferns of the British Isles and north-western Europe, Francis Rose, Viking, The Penguin Group; International Botanical Congress (IBC); Ferns and lycophytes, Patrick Brownsey, Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand; Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press.