Found among woodland floors, rocky outcroppings and even clinging to trees, ferns grow all over the world, and are found in the greatest numbers among the moist and perpetually warm tropics. Many of the species that are found in the forests and shady clearings of North America are elegant, wispy and somewhat subtle groundcovers that rarely reach heights above four feet or so.
Judging these unique growths by their appearance alone, it could be hard to guess that they are some of the oldest forms of plants still surviving today. In fact, the ancestors of the ferns we commonly see today were gigantic growths that dominated much of the landscape hundreds of millions of years ago.
For a bit of reference into just how old they are, ancient ferns are believed to have been some of the first plants to actually have leaves. Ferns used these leaves to quickly grow and take over huge tracts of land, with forests of giant tree ferns populated with dense undergrowths of smaller ferns designed to fill every empty space.
While the vast majority of ferns that survive today are much smaller than their ancestors, a few tropical ferns can still reach almost 100 feet in height. The abundance of ferns in prehistoric landscapes led to their being an important food source for countless animals, including many of the herbivorous dinosaurs that proved to be less resilient to environmental change than the ferns they ate.
We still rely on these ancient fern forests today. As generations of ferns and other plants died and were buried by water and earth, they eventually were pressed into the huge coal deposits that largely power the modern electric world.
Ferns were slowly replaced as the dominant plant form by flowering plants starting around 100 million years ago, but they can still be found in a wide variety of environments in impressively large numbers.
There are many types of ferns, however they all share one common trait – they all reproduce through spores. Similar to mushrooms, ferns rely mostly on wind to spread their spores and colonize distant locations. In order to find the perfect growing spot, ferns rely on a tough, colonizing form of themselves in order to mature into their final states.
After a spore lands in an acceptable location, it grows into a very small plant called a gametophyte, which is actually responsible for creating the stalky form (called a sporophyte) most people recognize as a fern.
After establishing itself in a good spot, the gametophyte fertilizes a sporophyte embryo and helps support it with nutrients until the new fern can support itself. The small gametophyte then typically dies, leaving the sporophyte to spread more spores and repeat the process.
The tall, leafy form of ferns also spread through thuggish rhizomes underneath the soil, which can regrow above-ground fronds every year. If you are able to spot them early enough, the emerging fronds of some of our native ferns are edible and nutritious.
Fern fronds unfurl from the base of the plant, and are commonly called fiddleheads as they closely resemble the top of a fiddle or violin. The fiddleheads of ostrich and cinnamon ferns are two good choices- make sure to cut them before they get above four inches, and make sure to use plenty of butter and spices in your recipe unless you enjoy a healthy dose of bitterness. Avoid eating the fiddleheads of bracken ferns, which contain an enzyme that may be harmful to humans in large amounts.
Bracken fiddleheads usually look more like a three-toed bird’s claw than a single shoot when unfurling.
Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. Contact him at email@example.com.