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Gardening — Wisconsin Native Ferns

Woods with 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 if damaged.

Fern Fiddlehead

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, 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 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.

Ferns Can Play An Import Role

  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's Native Ferns

Further Information:

 Wisconsin Native Fruit Trees
 Wisconsin Native Berry Shrubs
 Lovely Native Violets
 Use Eggshells For Your Plants
 How to Use Banana Peels in Your Garden

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