By: Marlene Affeld ~ I am surrounded by ferns. I love their smell, scent, taste, and textures. Here in the rainforests of the Big Island of Hawaii we have ferns bigger than the Lodge Pole Pine trees of Montana. At the base of the volcano, the area is known as Fern Forest.
Ferns, among the oldest living plants on earth, are an integral part of the world’s flora, appreciated for their beauty, food value and beneficial medicinal properties. Ferns are upright, typically low-growing, herbaceous, flowerless perennial plants that flourish in nutrient-rich, moist, well-drained locations with adequate light. Ferns often dominate forest understories, but frequently colonize open area, waterways, roadside ditches, and pastures.
Ferns present fronds (leaves) that drape, adding a dramatic accent to both outdoor gardens and indoor settings. In the plant class Pteridophyta, ferns have graced the planet for more than 360 million years, uncurling their fronds on the banks of streams or in the deep ravines of cloud-encrusted mountains. Ferns have long played a role in ecological succession, growing from open bogs, marshes, and rock exposures prior to the advance of forest vegetation.
Among the earliest vascular plants, ferns are similar to other plants in that they exhibit differentiated tissue for food and water transportation and have stems, leaves, and roots. However, unlike flowering plants, ferns do not produce pollen, flowers, fruit or seeds, reproducing from tiny eruptions on the back of the fronds. The “eruptions”, commonly known as “sori” appear as dark spots, usually brown, on the backside of the fronds. Sori spots contain microscopic spores, disseminated by water, the wind and wildlife.
Popular Fern Species
Ferns flourish in warm tropical regions although many hardy varieties adapt well to indoor cultivation when provide with filtered light and moist, fertile soil. There are more than 20,000 species of fern, from tiny water ferns with pin-head sized fronds to massive tree ferns that can grow up to 50 feet tall at maturity.
The Tasmanian tree fern, although a true fern, exhibits the form of a tree. The Tasmanian species is a member of the genus Dicksonia that contains more than 25 species, distributed from Mexico to New Zealand and throughout Australia and the Philippines. The most well known of the tree ferns, the Tasmanian tree fern (Dicksonia Antarctica) is treasured for its spectacular beauty, ease of cultivation and cold climate hardiness. The hardy plant reaches 40 to 50 feet tall at maturity and lives to be more than 400 years old. The broad, deep green frond can be over 18 feet long with each fern presenting as many as 80 fronds. When grown as a container planting, the Tasmanian tree fern’s growth is restricted to 12 to 15 feet in height. The Tasmanian tree fern is found in abundance in Australia and New Zealand. Because it is quite cold tolerant, the Tasmanian tree fern grows successfully in the warmer areas of Ireland, Great Britain and the United States where it is planted as a landscape ornamental accent.
In the United States, Hawaii has the largest amount of different fern species with more than 220 different and unusual ferns calling the islands home. In Hawaii, Laua’e ferns add rich color and texture to tropical landscapes and the forest floor. As a symbol of welcome embodying the “Aloha” spirit, cut fronds are frequently used for decoration and are an essential component of floral leis or garlands that are worn by both men and women. Laua’e ferns grow to a height of approximately 4 feet and growing quickly to establish colonies in open, yet shaded areas of the forest floor.
In the islands of Hawaii, tree ferns called Hapu’u (Cibotium glaucum) provide delicate, bright verdant color texture to their native land. You can also grow Hawaiian tree ferns elsewhere in U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zones plant hardiness10a through 11b or cultivate them as an indoor ornamental houseplant. While this adaptable species can reach a mature height of 20 to 20 feet in their native habitat, container-grown tree ferns usually stay retain a mature size of 10 feet or less. Hawaiian tree ferns grow slowly, adding only 3 to 4 inches per year when young and less than 1 inch per year as they age.
Florida is next with more than 150 different species identified in the wild. The exceptionally attractive Australian tree fern (Sphaeropteris cooperi), is the most commonly grown tree fern in Florida. Native to eastern Australia, the Australian tree fern’s massive trunk can reach up to 25 feet tall with finely divided fronds about 3 to 8 feet long. Unlike the giant tree fern, the cold hardy plant can survive sustained temperatures into the low 20s. The fast growing plant prefers fertile, well-drained soil and grows best when located in partial to full shade. It requires regular watering and light fertilizing during the spring and summer growing season.
The most common fern genus found around the world, Pterdium bracken, is typically found in cleared forest areas where it is most often succeed by woody, dense vegetation.
Japanese Holly Fern, commonly known as Deer Fern, thrives in coniferous forests throughout the US Pacific Northwest and Europe.
Deer Fern grows best in full shade, acidic soil enriched with organic matter and spreads vigorously by short, creeping rhizomes.
Ferns As Food
From the chilly lakeside shores of Upper Michigan to the sun-blessed valleys of Hawaii, there are several different species of edible ferns. The brilliant green spirals of fern fiddleheads are a welcomed harbinger of spring. Delicate with a lemony grass-like flavor, Fiddleheads are one of the season’s favorite wild edibles
Fiddleheads are very tasty when sautéed in minced garlic, butter and a pinch of fresh thyme. The tender shoots provide an excellent source of vitamin A and C and essential minerals iron, phosphorous, potassium, niacin, and calcium; thus their reputation as an invigorating “spring tonic.” Harvested in the wild, fiddleheads are picked when the tender frond starts to uncurl. Fiddleheads of the bracken, cinnamon, and ostrich fern are widely used for eating purposes.
For many centuries, tribes in India have used a leaf paste or powder derived from wild ferns to cure a diverse variety of ailments including centipede bites, infectious wounds, skin irritations and burns. Crushed fern fronds, when rubbed on exposed skin provide an excellent insect repellent.
Boston ferns are useful houseplants effectively removing toxins from the air such as formaldehyde given off by upholstery, carpets or commercial cleaning solutions.
Yet another fern variety, the rock cap fern, has proven effective in treating internal parasites such as tapeworms. It is also used as a laxative as well as a remedy for indigestion and bloating.
Some cultures employ extracts of maidenhair fern as a contraceptive. A poultice of fresh maidenhair fern fronds combats the toxins of snake bike, bee stings, and pesky mosquitoes.
Almost all species of ferns are adaptable to indoor cultivation. The only requirements are plenty of bright light but no direct sunshine, fertile well-drained soil, and moisture. A light daily spray of distilled water will keep foliage firm and fresh.
Common ferns such as maidenhair and Boston ferns are readily available from local florists or home and garden centers. If you would like to expand your collection, thousands of different species are available for order online from specialty growers.