Gardening — Wisconsin Native Ferns
A walk in Wisconsin native woodlands reveals that ferns are a significant element of a balanced
habitat for native wildlife and as so are deserving of space in our yards.
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. Indeed, they may provide a great solution for a shady,
damp spot that is otherwise hard to fill.
Ferns can have some very unusual forms and structures.
The leaves of ferns are often called fronds. Fronds are usually composed of a leafy blade and
petiole (leaf stalk). Leaf shape, size, texture and degree of complexity vary considerably from
species to species.
The midrib is the main axis of the blade, and the tip of the frond is its apex.
The blade may be variously divided, into segments called pinnae; single leaflets are pinna.
Pinna may be further divided, the smallest segments are pinnules.
As new fronds emerge, generally in the spring, they unroll these unrolling fronds are called fiddleheads.
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 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.
Sori are groups of sporangia , which contain spores. Sori are usually found on the underside of the blade.
Young sori are commonly covered by flaps of protective tissue called indusia.
Fern stems (rhizomes) are often inconspicuous because they generally grow below the surface of the
substrate in which the fern is growing. This substrate can be soil, moss or duff. People often confuse
rhizomes with roots. Fern roots are generally thin and wiry in texture and grow along the stem. They
absorb water and nutrients and help secure the fern to its substrate.
Stems can be short-creeping with fronds that are somewhat scattered along the stem, such as the fragile
fern; or, stems can be long-creeping resulting in fronds scattered along the stem.
Ferns Can Play An Important Role
Provides microhabitats, as well as shelter and shade to small animals
Provides a source of food or medicine for animals, including people
Colonizes disturbed sites as one stage in succession
Filters toxins, such as heavy metals, from environments and thus provide a bioindicator for
the health of an ecosystem
Evolved to fill unique niches in ecosystems and co-evolve with other species (often endemic)
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