Gardening — Wisconsin Native Ferns

Woods with 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.

Read More: Shade Garden Plan
See Wisconsin's: 9 Native Ferns

How To Plant Ferns

Light: Most ferns prefer a shady location, but they don't do well in deep shade.

Soil: Nearly all ferns prefer a soil that is moist and well-draining. Most do best in slightly acidic to neutral soil.

Water: Water ferns regularly during periods without rain, and do not let the soil get totally dry. A two-inch-thick layer of mulch will help.

Temperature and Humidity: Most (not all) ferns like a humid environment, but their temperature tolerance is quite broad.

Fertilizer: Although not essential, you can use a slow-release fertilizer mixed into the soil in early spring. Ferns are sensitive to fertilizer, so don't overfeed.

  Fern Structure

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.

Fern leaf structure.
Parts of a fern leaf.


Fern Fiddlehead

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.

  Fern Sori

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 sori.

  Fern Stems and Roots

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)

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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