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What is a Fern?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A fern is a seedless vascular plant which also does not flower. The fronds of ferns pop up in environments all over the world, and all told, thousands of species of plant are classified within the phylum Pteridophyta, which encompasses all of the ferns. In addition to growing wild, the fern is also used as an ornamental plant by humans. Some species of fern provide a source of food, as well.

The fern appears to be one of the earliest vascular plants. Vascular plants have a complex network of veins used to carry water and nutrients throughout the plant as it grows. The evolution of vascular plants such as the fern was an important step in plant history, since it allowed plants to make the jump from algae and small undifferentiated structures to things like flowering plants and trees.

Plants which are recognizable as ferns first appeared millions of years ago. Ferns were especially dominant during the Carboniferous era, most often in the form of giant tree ferns. As the plants died, they mulched and fertilized the soil, making conditions favorable for other plants to grow. These deposits of plants were compressed over millions of years into crude oil, the basis of petroleum products and fuels for modern humans.

Modern ferns range widely in size from very small, delicate specimens to towering tree ferns. They all share the characteristic of branching fronds, rather than traditional leaves. Many ferns have a feathery, lacy appearance which makes them popular as ornamental plants and instantly recognizable for many people. The fern reproduces through spores, which are found on the undersides of the fronds.

As decorative plants, ferns are used in gardens all over the world. Tree ferns are especially popular in the tropics, while more modest species are not uncommon in other places. The fiddleheads of some fern species are edible, leading a small market for these delicately flavored vegetables. A fiddlehead is the tightly furled growth which will eventually uncoil and turn into a frond. When picked before it matures, the fiddlehead is tender and flavorful.

In many forests, ferns are an important part of the ecology. They contribute to the layer of leaf mold and humus on the forest floor which nourishes larger plants and protects the soil. Ferns also provide shelter for wildlife, and serve as a source of food for some animals as well. Humans have used the fern for centuries for things like home insulation and garden mulch, since they exist in such abundance in many parts of the world, especially temperate zones.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HomeQuestionsAnswered researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By myharley — On Jun 10, 2012

I never realized there were so many different types of ferns until I went looking for a certain type of fern.

I have an area in my yard where I have a lot of red flowers that bloom in the fall. This is a shady area, and I was looking for some plants to help fill in some gaps.

I was surprised at how many different kinds of ferns there were to choose from. I ended up buying some Japanese painted ferns that have red leaves. These are easy to grow, and the red leaves blend in beautifully with the other plants I have in that area.

Another advantage is that the deer aren't interested in eating these ferns, so they tend to stay away from this garden spot.

By golf07 — On Jun 10, 2012

When I think of ferns, it reminds me of an area on the north side of our garage growing up that had a long section of ostrich ferns.

Growing along with these ferns, were some Lily of the Valley, and these two plants made a beautiful, green display during the summer.

The ostrich ferns are tall, light and airy and the Lily of the Valley are short, but very fragrant when they are in bloom. They also would grow and multiply every year so the area kept getting bigger and bigger.

This was a perfect place for them as they were out of the sun and the area was moist and humid, which seems to be the perfect growing conditions for these plants.

By bagley79 — On Jun 09, 2012

@LisaLou - Did you ever try misting your fern on a regular basis? I used to have similar problems when I was growing ferns, but this made a big difference for me.

They love to be misted with water and I would do this a couple times a week. A light mist is all that is necessary and you don't need to drench them. This helped keep the leaves from drying out and falling off.

I also watered the fern once a week, but made sure to mist it at least twice a week. You are right about most ferns doing better in shade than sunlight. Even though your ferns were in indirect sunlight, it still may have been too much light for them.

Ferns can be a bit tricky to grow, but I love how delicate and airy they are. I am glad that I stuck with it, and have been rewarded with some beautiful indoor ferns that I get a lot of compliments on.

By LisaLou — On Jun 09, 2012

Any time I have tried to grow a fern hanging in a pot, I have not had much luck. No matter how much water I gave it, the leaves would become dry and fall off. I usually had a small pile of leaves on the floor under where the fern was hanging.

I always tried to keep them in a place that would get indirect sunlight, as most ferns prefer shade. My grandma has had the same beautiful, large fern for many years, and hers never looked like mine did.

After trying more than once, I finally gave up and decided I would try to grow something that wasn't so temperamental.

By turquoise — On Jun 08, 2012

@ddljohn-- You can try spraying the fern with lemon juice. Cats generally hate the scent of lemon and will leave the plant alone.

@alisha-- I know what you mean! I had my own share of issues growing ferns. I bought several from a nursery three months ago. The main problem was that the ferns were having trouble adjusting to the new conditions. I think they were getting a lot more sunlight in the nursery. So when they started getting less natural light and more artificial light in my home, they were not happy.

All of them completely lost their leaves and I was pretty sure that I was killing them. But after they lost everything, it started to come back! Now they're doing okay, they have most of the leaves back and they're all green. I guess it's a big challenge for ferns when their location is changed. That's why I will never move them again.

By discographer — On Jun 08, 2012

@ddljohn-- Ah, Kimberly Queen! That's one of my favorites! Since you are able to keep a Kimberly Queen indoors, I'm guessing you guys have a lot of humidity in your area.

I used to have a Kimberly Queen fern too but I unfortunately lost it because I didn't know that it needed a lot of moisture. People always recommend this fern saying that it's much easier to grow than other types of fern, but that's not true. It grows well in a humid environment, but not so well if it's dry. And all ferns need periodic soil changes, a pot with plenty of room and regular misting, sometimes several times a day.

Right now, I have three Boston ferns and they are doing really well. I think this type manages much better in drier weather.

By ddljohn — On Jun 08, 2012

@Perdido-- I do agree with you but I also know that some people have to hang their fern up to prevent their pets from eating it. My cat, for example, loves chewing on fern and forced my mom to hang our Kimberly Queen fern up.

I don't know why but fern appears to be very delicious to pets. And my cat is so smart, she always eats the fiddleheads! I guess animals know by instinct which plants and specifically which parts are edible. If it was my fern and if my cat wasn't doing too much damage, I'd let her eat it. But my mom loves all her plants and especially this fern and my cat was kind of going crazy with it so we had to hang the fern up.

By seag47 — On Jun 07, 2012

There is a tree fern on my property that looks rather exotic. Even though I don’t live near the beach, this tree makes the area look tropical.

It grows in the shade by a stream. I’m sure it appreciates the moisture there. Most other ferns I’ve seen have been growing wild in the forest.

It has a thin trunk that branches out low in many directions. So, it actually looks more like a sort of bush with thick branches than a tall tree.

I love feeling of the fronds. They are so soft and delicate, unlike most leaves, which are rough and irritating to the skin. I think I could easily fall asleep on a bed of fronds if I had to sleep in the woods!

By Oceana — On Jun 06, 2012

@kylee07drg - I’ve heard of those! I’ve also seen other plants that looked like ferns at first but put out flowers later in season.

One is the starflower vine. It starts out with little spring green fronds shooting out of a vine that wraps around a fence, but as summer deepens, little red, star-shaped flowers bloom.

I have a plant called a cinnamon fern that looks like it has more going on than just fronds, but it is a true fern. It has reddish-brown fronds in the center, surrounded by huge green fronds. The brown ones contain the spores, and from a distance, they look like cattails.

The bigger green fronds grow first, and then the ones that turn brown emerge in the middle. These ferns can get huge. Mine is over a foot wide and several feet long.

By kylee07drg — On Jun 05, 2012

My aunt has something called a flowering fern in her garden. It is not a true fern, but the leaves look just like fern fronds.

The dark green leaves are tiny and shoot out from a stalk like fern fronds. The flowers are magenta and shaped like trumpets. They cover the plant in early summer and bloom for a couple of months.

Before the blooms unfolded, I thought the plant really was a fern. Once I saw the flowers, though, I knew it was just an impersonator!

It looks great as a border plant. She has it lining the front of her flower bed, and since the plants are rather small, they don’t hide the taller zinnias behind them.

By Perdido — On Jun 05, 2012

I know so many people who keep ferns in hanging pots on their porches. To me, it’s kind of a shame to keep them up high outdoors, where you don’t see them often. I think they should be kept on a plant stand in the house, where everyone can enjoy them.

I bought my friend a potted fern for her birthday, and she stuck it outside on a hook. I was a little hurt by this, but what could I say? It was hers to do with as she chose.

I do make it a point to keep my ferns where they can be easily seen. I’ve had several guests comment on how they never really noticed how beautiful ferns were before they saw mine, because they had never really paid attention to them.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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