Lady Ferns

2016 July 30

These ferns are very widespread in cool, moist, shady environments all around our property. This particular patch was photographed on May 27, 2016, and was growing beside the road, just down the hill from our house.


At first I thought they were bracken ferns, probably the most widespread fern genus in the world. But, as Carole pointed out in the comments, I was mistaken. There were bracken ferns growing all around this patch up in the drier ground, but this patch down in the cool, dark, wet area is a different genus altogether. They are most likely Lady Ferns, Athyrium filix-femina, which are also extremely common and widespread.


I missed them when they first came up, ferns have a characteristic way of growing where they emerge as “fiddleheads” that rapidly unroll, allowing them to go from sprout to full-sized fronds several feet tall within a couple of weeks. Here are a couple that hadn’t finished unrolling yet.


This second one looks like something from a Tim Burton movie.


For some ferns, if you catch the fiddleheads during the couple of days before they unroll, then they are edible. You can cook them up something like asparagus. However, it turns out that they may be full of carcinogenic chemicals, so while they might not taste bad or make you sick right away, they greatly increase your odds of stomach cancer in the long run.

Once they grow up, though, the fronds are pretty much inedible. And I don’t just mean inedible to humans. When I was a kid, our dairy cattle wouldn’t touch them, either. And I’ve been checking for signs of insects eating them, and so far have found nothing. I bet the mature fronds taste pretty nasty. They also feel like they might be high in silica, like the distantly-related horsetails.

Ferns spread by windborne spores, so they are likely to pop up anywhere that the conditions are favorable, even if the nearest stand of parent ferns is miles away. Once the spores get established and go through their sexual stage, they produce the vegetative form that makes a long-lived rhizome that overwinters from year to year, producing an ever-larger fern patch as time goes by.

3 Responses
  1. Carole permalink
    July 30, 2016

    Doesn’t look at all like the Southern bracken fern.

  2. Anne Bingham permalink
    August 1, 2016

    I suspect earwigs like them, because a couple of ours are looking pretty raggedy now and earwigs are the likely suspect because it’s been too dry for slugs. Unless “too dry” is the culprit.

  3. August 2, 2016

    Carole: You know what? You’re right. These aren’t bracken ferns. I made an unwarranted assumption. There are in fact bracken ferns growing all around this particular patch (and I just got pictures of them yesterday), and so I assumed that all of the ferns in the area were the same thing. But these particular ferns are something else. Probably “Lady Ferns”, Athyrium filix-femina. I’d better go and correct the post. Thanks!

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