Gardening — Wisconsin Native Ferns
With so much recent focus on the plight of pollinators and the drive to provide gardens full of
nourishing native plants to support them, it’s easy for the humble ferns to be overlooked. Yet a walk in
the native woodlands reveals that they are a significant element of a balanced habitat for native wildlife
and as so are deserving of space in our yards. Indeed, they may provide a great solution for a shady,
damp spot that is otherwise hard to fill.
Ferns are distinct from other plants because they do not flower, and do not have “seeds”. Instead,
they reproduce via the release of spores, typically from small capsules on the underside of the fern
frond. Spores are tiny single-celled organisms and, if they land in the right spot (overwhelmingly they
do not), the cell will begin to divide, eventually forming a tiny, single leafed plant called a prothallium. The prothallium then releases and fertilizes an egg which will develop into a fern.
Ferns can also extend their rhizomes, a stem like structure which is sometimes entirely underground,
below the ground, allowing the fern to create additional, genetically identical plants or to sprout anew
When ferns begin to grow they form what is known as a fiddlehead, this is the frond as it begins to
unfurl. In the early spring, fiddleheads can be seen popping up all over the Refuge, some bright green
and some covered in white, down-like hairs, they are truly whimsical looking. Many types of fiddlehead
can be eaten, although certain species are toxic, and others may contain large amounts of
carcinogens. Despite the dangers, many people still eat them and they are reputed to taste like
almonds and asparagus.
Ostrich Fern, Matteuccus struthiopteris, fiddleheads are edible, but tricky to identify. Once you can
identify the mature plant, it is advised to wait until next spring to harvest the fiddlehead. The
fiddleheads have dry, papery scales that protect the coils that must be removed along with any soil
before eating. It is important not to eat raw fiddleheads.
Provide microhabitats, as well as shelter and shade to small animals
Provide a source of food or medicine for animals, including people
Colonize disturbed sites as one stage in succession
Filter toxins, such as heavy metals, from environments and thus provide a bioindicator for
the health of an ecosystem
Evolve to fill unique niches in ecosystems and co-evolve with other species (often endemic)
Wisconsin Native Fruit Trees
Wisconsin Native Berry Shrubs
Lovely Native Violets
Use Eggshells For Your Plants
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