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Those Fascinating Ferns


Ferns are some of the oldest vascular plants in the world, yet they are still very much with us and provide a foundation for our lovely forest views. Although they are not generally colorful, the variety of sizes, shapes, and textures of the fronds is spectacular.

New York Ferns along observation deck trail AMNC

Ferns reproduce by means of spores. The ferns in our area can generally be identified by means of the size, shape, and texture of the leaves. As you become more interested the morphology, the fruitdots which release the spores and are usually on the undersurface of the leaves, may be of interest to you. Many novice fern lovers mistake these dots for some type of scale insect.


Although relatively few people are able to identify ferns, you can quickly learn to recognize eight, ten, or more that grow in the immediate vicinity of the Abbotts Mill Nature Center.

AddersTongue Fern at Milburn Landing
Adders-tongue Fern - Milburn Landing-MD

The typical fern leaf, or frond, has the elongated shape of a Christmas tree. The edges of the leaf my be uncut, once cut, twice cut, or thrice (three times) cut. I will give you an example of each of those types to look for. Only the first example is one that you might not see on our Nature Center lands, since I have only seen it along the Pocomoke River woodlands.

Adders-tongue Fern and Christmas Fern
Rattlesnake Fern - Donovan Woods

The Adder’s Tongue fern has a leaf with entire, or uncut edges. The spores are delivered from a specialized stem and gives the fern its name. You might not see the adder’s tongue locally, but the closely related Rattlesnake Fern does appear regularly on Abbott’s Mill, Morton, Wilson, Lindale, and Blair’s Pond tracts. The leaves are slightly leathery, and the unique spore-bearing stem is distinctive.

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Sensitive Fern at boardwalk AMNC

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Next are some ferns that have the edges cut one time (from the edge toward the midrib).

Once-cut - Netted-chain Fern frond

The Sensitive Fern grows abundantly along the boardwalk Millstream Trail that begins behind Abbott’s Mill. Each leaflet is wavy edged plus the lower leaflets point downward and forward. This fern dies quickly at the first frost which gives it the name “sensitive”. Another local name for Sensitive Fern is Bead Fern because the spore bearing stems persist through much of the winter and look like a stick with dark brown beads at the tip.


Sensitive Fern

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Netted-chain Fern AMNC

The Netted-chain Fern is often overlooked because of its similar appearance to the Sensitive Fern; however, you can easily learn to tell them apart. To me they are always more diminutive with leaflets that are glossier green and finely toothed. The spores are carried on specialized fertile leaves that are more constricted and grow with the sterile leaves. This lovely little fern grows in spreading colonies closer to the observation tower and near the spillway at Blair’s Pond connector boardwalk from the picnic area to the 5K trail. There are many other sites to see this fern and once you positively recognize it, you will see it on all the properties. When you do you will be deemed an “expert” and amaze your friends and confuse your enemies.

Netted-chain Fern AMNC
Netted-chain Fern at Blairs boardwalk

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Ebony spleenwort Fern
Ebony Spleenwort Fern - Christmas fern too

The narrow ladder-like fronds of the Ebony Spleenwort are quite endearing. The leaves stand upright, 15-20 inches tall, during the growing season but sometimes are prostrate in Autumn. This is a once cut fern, but the leaflets do have notched edges. The stems are ebony black. Typically, a few plants will grow together but larger colonies do appear. Look for it on Wilson, Morton, AMNC, and Blair’s woods and along the pondside trail to Lindale Woods. Ebony Spleenwort has an affinity to grow under black walnut trees. It was a frequent candidate for my boyhood terrariums and my wife’s favorite fern.

Ebony Spleenwort - Donovan Woods

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The final once cut fern I will describe is the Christmas Fern.

Christmas Fern - Milburn Landing, MD

It has dark, green, leathery leaves that are evergreen, thus the name Christmas Fern. It is suitable for woodland flower areas and is listed for sale in many specialty catalogs. In former times it was very abundant along the Tantrough drainage on our farm but has currently almost disappeared. I suspect this is due to climate change. It is still very common along the Pocomoke River drainage and Nassawango, Shad Landing, Milburn Landing, etc.

Christmas Fern - Milburn Landing, MD

My friend, Wm. McAvoy, uses this as an indicator species since other unusual plants grow in the habitats preferred by Christmas Ferns. I have used this trick many times. Its overall appearance is that of the tender, exotic Boston Fern that hang in summer by the thousands on shaded porches.

New York Fern colony
New York Fern AMNC

The New York Fern is typical of a fern with twice-cut leaflets.

Twice-cut - New York Fern frond

Each leaflet is cut a second time giving a lacier look. New York Fern spreads by underground roots to form, large, dense yellow-green colonies. It grows on the drier sandy sites behind the Nature Center directly beside the trails. You can identify New York Fern by its double tapering leaves. The leaflets taper from the middle of the leaf to the tip and from the middle to the base as well. This field mark will separate it from some other similar species.

New York Ferns

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Cinnamon Fern colony
Cinnamon Fern fiddlehead Spring shoots
Cinnamon Fern fertile fronds

Growing directly in the wettest, boggiest areas of the swamp is the large, upright

Cinnamon Fern. These ferns can reach a height of three or four feet. In early spring the fuzzy fiddleheads appear. These are soon followed by the specialized fertile fronds that are covered with cinnamon-colored thick fuzz. This gives the Cinnamon Fern its name. Cinnamon Fern is a twice cut fern and loved by many. It is also offered for sale in specialized nursery catalogs and easy to transplant when dormant.

Cinnamon Ferns foundation planting

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Royal Fern near millrace AMNC

The other unique fern that loves the wettest areas is the Royal Fern. The leaflets are so widely spaced that it can look somewhat un-fernlike. When given space and ideal conditions, Royal Fern is the largest of out local species and may reach six feet in height. Look for it in the swamp along the boardwalk trail behind the mill building.

Royal Ferns - leaf detail - AMNC
Royal Fern fertile frond detail

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The Bracken Fern is the first fern that I learned to know by name. There was a very large, spreading colony in our pine woods at the Tantrough farm. My mother showed me how to transplant it and I moved a small rootstock to the north corner of our house.

Bracken Fern observation deck trail AMNC
Bracken - newly emerged

This clump grew, spread, and thrived for many years, a trouble-free plant. This fern is referred to in English literature simply as bracken. Once established, bracken will survive dry soil and periods of drought. It is easy to care for but because of spreading under- ground roots; it should not be planted among other perennials. The leaves are a distinct triangular shape and thrice cut. It is listed as our commonest fern. Look for the colony in back of the Nature Center, adjacent to the New York Ferns and just before the observation tower [behind the Nature Center].

Bracken Fern colony under pines

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Finally the laciest of our ferns, is the Lady Fern.

I will include it here since you are certain to see it. It has the classic fern shape. It forms clumps in open woods in relatively moist, but not soggy, soil. It is large and showy with thrice cut leaflets. (see photos).

Lady Ferns - thrice cut fronds
Lady Fern frond - classic shape

Thrice-cut - Lady Fern frond detail

The preceding ferns will cover 90% of the ones you will encounter on Nature Preserve Lands. So, go out and have a look. A good place to begin is directly behind Abbott’s Mill on the boardwalk beside the millrace.

Happy Hiking!


Photos by the author.

Boardwalk Mill Stream Trail - AMNC

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Next week, learn about the mills and millers on Shallcross Lake, near Odessa, DE


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