Woodland Ferns

Hart's-tongue Borrer's Male Fern Common Hard Fern Borrer's Male Fern

What are they?

Ferns are primitive plants that evolved before the flowering plants and reproduce sexually by means of spores rather than seeds. This page covers the species that you are most likely to come across in woodland and other shady places and most of them are clump-forming species.

Where are they found?

This page specifically covers ferns of woodland and other shady places. Some of these species may also occasionally be found in more open, wetland habitats, sometimes persisting when trees have been felled or died back. Other shady places such as dank corners behind north-facing walls may also be favoured by these shade-lovers. If you don't see your species here, try the species of wetland habitats.

Identification

This is the most difficult group of ferns to tell apart and it is necessary to note details of the smallest segments of the leaves, the spore cases (if present) and the outline and shape of the overall leaf. In the buckler and male ferns, the spores are covered by a round or kidney-shaped structure called an indusium and these lie in a double row along the underside of the leaflets. For ease of describing the various parts, a couple of technical terms are used; the side arms that form the first division of a leaf are called pinnae (singular, pinna), while the secondary divisions of the pinnae are called pinnules, which make up the smallest parts of each leaf.



Bracken      Pteridium aquilinum

Native. An abundant plant of both shady and sunny places, being most common on peaty, acid heathlands, where it may carpet large areas of ground. Bracken spreads readily by underground rhizomes which push up fresh, bright green leaves in great quantity in the spring and which then die down in the autumn, the dead leaves turning cinnamon-brown and remaining through the winter. Easily told from all other ferns by its spreading habit, coupled with the two- to three-metre long leaves, which start as a single stalk, but then branch into three main sections. Ripe spores appear in autumn and are covered by inrolled leaf margins.

Bracken Bracken Bracken Bracken
Habit
Spring shoots
Leaf
Pinnules


Hart's-tongue      Asplenium scolopendrium

Native. Occasionally found in woodland especially along ditch sides and shady banks, but increasingly more common as a plant of dank corners, old walls, cemeteries and other human-influenced habitats. A very distinctive fern, being our only species with highly glossy leaves that are entire and not divided. The spore-bearing sori on the underside of the leaves appear as a series of narrow, dark, parallel lines. This plant is evergreen and the old leaves can get browned and very tattered over winter before the new leaves emerge in spring.

Hart's-tongue Hart's-tongue Hart's-tongue Hart's-tongue
Winter
Summer
Fresh leaves
Spores in slit-like lines


Broad Buckler Fern      Dryopteris dilatata

Native. Common throughout most of the region in a range of wetlands, though more or less absent from Fenland and from the heavier, clay soils in south Norfolk and central Suffolk. Spore-bearing fronds may be found from late May to August. Overall, the leaf has a broad outline with the longest pinnae half way down the leaf and becoming shorter towards the base. Pinnules end in sharply pointed teeth with incurved tips. The scales at the base of the leaf are pale with an obvious, dark centre.

Broad Buckler Fern Broad Buckler Fern Broad Buckler Fern
Habit
Pinnules
Basal scales


Common Male Fern      Dryopteris filix-mas

Native. Our most common clump-forming fern of shady places, found throughout the region in a very wide range of habitats. A deciduous species, with all of the leaves dying down over winter - thus, spring plants consist only of new, fresh green leaves. Leaves are narrower and more parallel-sided than those of Broad Buckler Fern and the pinnules have less sharply-pointed tips. Compared with Borrer's Male Fern, the pinnules are more sharply pointed and they tend to taper slightly towards the tip.

Common Male Fern Common Male Fern Common Male Fern
Habit
Pinnules
Spore cases


Borrer's Male Fern      Dryopteris borreri

Native. The male ferns have been reviewed in recent years, such that the true status of the various forms has yet to be fully established. This species appears to be fairly widespread in damper woodlands and used to be in the group of forms known as Scaly Male Fern. An evergreen species - thus, spring plants consist of both new, fresh green leaves and old, dark green leaves (see photo). Leaves are narrower and more parallel-sided than those of Broad Buckler Fern and the pinnules have less sharply-pointed tips. Compared with Common Male Fern, the pinnules are very rounded at the tip and have more or less parallel sides. At the base of the pinnules, there is a dark, blackish mark. The scales at the base of the leaf stalk are plentiful and a rich, golden-brown colour.

Borrer's Male Fern Borrer's Male Fern Borrer's Male Fern Borrer's Male Fern
Habit
Pinnules
Basal scales
Dark pinnule mark


Soft Shield Fern      Polystichum setiferum

Native. Found most frequently in mossy, damp ditches bordering woodland or along shady lanes and back roads. Widespread but generally uncommon, except on the loamy soils of NE Norfolk, where it is quite frequent on hedgebanks. Spore-bearing fronds may be found from July to December. Overall, the leaf is rather soft to the touch and has a narrow outline with pinnae becoming only a little shorter towards the base before ending abruptly. Pinnules are sharply pointed with long teeth. The basal margins of the lowest pair of pinnules form an acute angle (compare with Hard Shield Fern).

Soft Shield Fern Soft Shield Fern Soft Shield Fern Soft Shield Fern
Habit
Leaves
Leaf base
Pinnules


Hard Shield Fern      Polystichum aculeatum

Native. Found most frequently in mossy, damp ditches bordering woodland or along shady lanes and back roads. Widespread but generally uncommon, except in SW Suffolk and on the heavier soils of central Norfolk. Spore-bearing fronds may be found from July to December. Overall, the leaf is firm and leathery to the touch and has a narrow outline with pinnae becoming progressively much shorter towards the base. Pinnules are sharply pointed with long teeth. The basal margins of the lowest pair of pinnules form an obtuse angle (compare with Soft Shield Fern).

Hard Shield Fern Hard Shield Fern Hard Shield Fern Hard Shield Fern
Habit
Leaves
Leaf base
Pinnules


Common Lady Fern      Athyrium filix-femina

Native. Widespread but rather uncommon in shady or damp places on acidic soils. Ripe spores present in late autumn. A graceful species with delicately and finely cut leaves. Leaves in outline are broadest about the middle, with a pointed, long-tapered tip. Pinnules have deeply lobed and toothed margins. The spores are covered by an indusium which is either linear, or more often curved or J-shaped in outline.

Common Lady Fern Common Lady Fern Common Lady Fern Common Lady Fern
Habit
Pinnae
Young pinnae
Pinnules


Common Hard Fern      Blechnum spicant

Native. A rather rare species in East Anglia, preferring a wetter climate and acidic soils, but it occurs at a handful of locations in East Suffolk and on the acid heaths of west and north-east Norfolk. Spore-bearing fronds may be found late summer onward. A small species, with leaves growing to 20-60cm in length. Leaves are of two types, all being just once-pinnate, without pinnules. The outer leaves are sterile and arch outward, while the inner leaves are narrower, fertile (bearing the spores) and stand upright in the centre of the plant.

Common Hard Fern Common Hard Fern Common Hard Fern Common Hard Fern
Habit
Leaf
Pinnae
Fertile leaves


Oak Fern      Gymnocarpium dryopteris

Native. In the UK, this is largely a plant of the wetter north and west and has always been very rare in East Anglia. Old records exist for Norfolk and Suffolk but now it probably only occurs at a single site on acidic soil in West Norfolk. Plants creep by means of underground rhizomes, which send up scattered, three-parted leaves which are light green and up to 30cm in length.

Oak Fern
Habit