Ferns

It’s hard to go anywhere in the Southern Appalachians and not encounter ferns of all shapes and sizes. Below are some of the species we most commonly see on our hikes in North and South Carolina. Click on any picture to zoom.

Parts of a Fern

Some useful terms to aid in identification follow and are shown in the diagram. For more detailed information consult one of the reference sources listed at the bottom of this page.

  • Blade – the green leafy portion of the frond
  • Frond – the portion of each fern leaf that is above ground = the blade + stipe
  • Pinna – the first subdivision of the blade
  • Pinnatifid – pinnae are not cut to the mid rib & remain connected to each other
  • Pinnule – a subdivision of the pinna
    • Pinnate – pinna is once divided [see Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)]
    • Bipinnate – pinna is twice divided [see Marginal Wood Fern (Dryopteris marginalis)]
    • Tripinnate – pinna is thrice divided [see Intermediate Wood Fern (Dryopteris intermedia)]
  • Rachis – the stalk within the blade
  • Sorus/Sori – a cluster of capsules containing spores
  • Sporangia – the structures in the sorus that produce the spores
  • Stipe – the stalk below the blade (petiole)

Adiantum pedatum 

  • Common Name: Northern Maidenhair Fern
  • Location: Low- to mid-elevations in rich rocky woods or on moist ledges; common
  • Form: Deciduous. Distinctive. Semi-circular blade forms a fan shape
  • Reproduction: Sporangia are located in patches under outer edge of leaflets
  • Derivation of Scientific Name:  From the Latin for “unwetted” & “foot-like”

Asplenium montanum 

  • Common Name: Mountain Spleenwort
  • Location: Mid- to high-elevations on moist shaded cliffs & ledges; common
  • Form: Evergreen. Lacy, divided leaf form
  • Reproduction: Sori occur along the veins of each segment
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: From a for “without” and splenium for “spleen” for its purported medicinal uses to reduce an enlarged spleen, & “of the mountains”

Asplenium platyneuron 

  • Common Name: Ebony Spleenwort
  • Location: Low- to mid-elevations on rocks & ledges, tree bases, & rocky ground; common
  • Form: Semi-evergreen. Distinctive. Rachis & petioles usually red-brown. Pinnae alternate & pointed, with lobes overlapping the rachis
  • Reproduction: Fertile blades are taller than vegetative blades and have 2 diagonal rows of sori
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: From platy for “wide” & neuro for “veins or nerves”

Asplenium resiliens

    • Common Name: Black-stem Spleenwort
    • Location: Low elevations on rocks & ledges; uncommon
    • Form: Evergreen. Rachis & petioles are black. Pinnae opposite & rounded; lobes do not overlap the rachis
    • Reproduction: Oblong sori, nearer margins than mid-vein
    • Derivation of Scientific Name: From the Latin resilire, “to recoil or rebound”

Asplenium rhizophyllum

  • Common Name: Walking Fern
  • Location: Low- to mid-elevations on moist limestone or rock outcroppings; uncommon
  • Form: Evergreen. Distinctive. Undivided leaves are heart-shaped at base & pointed at apex
  • Frequently roots at the tips to produce new plants, thus “walking”
  • Reproduction: Sori follow the veins on the underside of the leaves
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: From rhiza for “root” & phylum for “leaves”

Athyrium filix-femina ssp. asplenioides 

  • Common Name: Southern Lady Fern
  • Location: Low- to mid-elevations in moist woods, moist meadows, swamps, & along streams; common
  • Form: Deciduous. Rachis and petioles are often dark-colored. Light green leaves have a lacy appearance
  • Reproduction: Sori are hook-shaped or elongated
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: Possibly from a for “without” and  thyrus meaning “door”.  The specific epithet, filix-femina, means “lady fern. Asplenioides means “Asplenium-like”

Botrychium biternatum

  • Common Name: Sparse-lobed Grape Fern
  • Location: Low- to mid-elevations in sparse woods and shrubby fields; less common than Botrychium dissectum, but often difficult to differentiate between them
  • Form: Evergreen. A single triangular-shaped sterile blade divided into 2 or 3 sections (bipinnate or tripinnate) appears in late summer & persists until spring. Fewer leaf segments and a more open appearance than Botrychium dissectum. Pinnule margins finely serrated. Tips entire and pointed, terminal pinnules elongated
  • Frond edges may turn bronze in winter
  • Reproduction: A tall fertile blade arises from close to the ground in fall. The sporangia resemble a bunch of grapes, hence the name
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: – From botry for a “bunch of grapes”, from the resemblance of the sporangia to clusters of grapes & “two sets of three” for the shape of the leaves

Botrychium dissectum 

  • Common Name: Dissected Grape Fern
  • Location: Low- to mid-elevations in woods & fields; common
  • Form: Evergreen. A single triangular-shaped sterile blade divided into 2 to 4 sections appears in late summer & persists until spring. Variable in appearance from little to highly dissected. Greater numbers of pinnae and more pairs of pinnules than seen in Botrychium biternatum. Pinnule margins usually smooth; terminal pinnules somewhat rounded
  • Fronds often turn bronze in winter
  • Reproduction: A tall fertile blade arises from close to the ground in fall. The sporangia resemble a bunch of grapes
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: From  “finely cut”

Botrychium virginianum 

  • Common Name: Rattlesnake Fern
  • Location: Low- to mid-elevations in rich woods; common
  • Form: Deciduous. Distinctive. A single light-green triangular-shaped sterile blade, divided into 3 sections & angled horizontally appears in spring and dies back each year
  • Reproduction: A tall fertile blade arises from the base of the leaf blade in the spring. The sporangia resemble a bunch of grapes
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: From “found in Virginia”

Cheilanthes lanosa

  • Common Name: Hairy Lip Fern
  • Location: Low- to mid-elevations on rocky areas exposed to sun & wind; uncommon
  • Form: Evergreen. Fronds are loosely clumped, dark green & hairy. Stipe & rachis are dark brown & hairy.
  • Reproduction: Sori are marginal
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: From “lipped flower”and “woolly”

 


Cheilanthes tomentosa

  • Common Name: Woolly Lip Fern
  • Location: Low- to mid-elevations in sheltered areas on granite or sandstone rocks; uncommon
  • Form: Evergreen. Fronds are tufted, bright green, & very hairy. Stipe & rachis are dark brown, densely hairy, & scaly
  • Reproduction: Sori are marginal
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: From “densely woolly”

 


Cystopteris protrusa   

  • Common Name: Lowland Bladder Fern
  • Location: Low- to mid-elevations in rich woods; common
  • Form: Deciduous. Small delicate fronds in the early spring with lobed or toothed pinnae
  • Reproduction: Round sori on the veins
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: From the Greek cystis or kystis for “bladder” and pteris for “fern,”  &  from the Latin pro– for “forward”, tru-.&  sus, for “thrust”

Dennstaedtia punctilobula 

  • Common Name: Hay-scented Fern
  • Location: Common in a wide range of elevations and habitats
  • Form: Deciduous. Grows in dense spreading clumps. Leaves are light green, tripinnate, and covered with hairs. The fronds have an alfalfa-like scent when crushed
  • Reproduction: Small, round, tea cup-like sori are located at margins of the pinnules
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: After German physician and botanist, August William Dennstedt & with “dotted lobules”

Deparia acrostichoides 

  • Common Name: Silvery Glade Fern
  • Location: Moist, rich woods & wet stream banks; common
  • Form: Deciduous. Grows in clumps. Leaves covered with stiff, silvery hairs. Blade  is pinnate-pinnatifid (the pinna are still connected to the blade at their base)
  • Reproduction: Sori are straight & obliquely lined up in rows on each side of mid-vein
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: From depas for “dish or saucer” because of the minutely dish-like appearance of the sori, acros for “top”, & stichos for “row”, because the sori are often found in the distal part of the pinnae.

Dryopteris campyloptera

  • Common Name: Mountain Wood Fern
  • Location: Rich soils at high elevations >4,000 ft; common
  • Form: Deciduous. Fronds grow in a crown. Looks similar to Intermediate Wood Fern, except taller and broader  Also, the lower pinnule  of the basal pinna is attached midway between the first & second upper pinnule
  • Reproduction:  Sori are located intermediate between the mid-vein and the margins of the pinnules
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: From the Greek drys for “oak” & pteris for “fern”, & possibly from campylos for “bent or curved” & pteron for “feather or wing”

Dryopteris intermedia

  • Common Name: Intermediate Wood Fern
  • Location: Common in a wide range of elevations and habitats
  • Form: Evergreen. Fronds grow in a crown surrounded by last year’s old growth. Stipe is scaly; rachis is hairy. Blade is tripinnate.
  • Reproduction: Sori are located intermediate between the mid-vein and the margins of the pinnules
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: Based on the intermediate location of the sori

Dryopteris marginalis

  • Common Name: Marginal Wood Fern
  • Location: Low- to mid-elevations in rich woods; common
  • Form: Evergreen. Fronds grow in a crown surrounded by last year’s old growth. Stipe is scaly. Blade is bipinnate
  • Reproduction: Round sori are located close to the margins of the pinnules
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: Based on the location of the sori, close to the margin

Lygodium palmatum

  • Common Name: Climbing Fern
  • Location: Low- to mid-elevations; uncommon
  • Form: Deciduous. Distinctive. Vine-like fronds twist & climb over nearby vegetation. Leaves are palmately lobed like a hand with extending fingers
  • Reproduction: Fertile pinnae are at the apex of the blade. Sori are located on the underside of these smaller “fingers” on each side of the mid-vein
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: From lygodes for “flexible or twining”, reflecting its climbing nature & for “palm- or hand-like”

Onoclea sensibilis 

  • Common Name: Sensitive Fern
  • Location: Low elevations in wet locations
  • Form: Deciduous. Pinnatifid. Pinnae of sterile blades are opposite & connected to each other & the rachis by wings
  • Reproduction: A tall fertile blade bears 2 rows of bead-like structures containing the sori
  • Could be confused with Netted Chain Fern (Woodwardia areolate), which has alternate pinnae and a different type of fertile blade
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: For “closed cup” referring to the configuration of the sori & to the sensitivity of the plant to frost

Osmunda claytoniana

  • Common Name: Interrupted Fern
  • Location: Low to high elevations in wet woods & damp areas; common
  • Form: Deciduous. Distinctive when fertile pinnae are present. Fronds grow in a crown. Sterile pinnae are alternate & pinnate-pinnatifid. A large fern, similar in appearance to Cinnamon Fern, except the pinnae tend to be rounded, not pointed
  • Reproduction: When present, the fertile pinnae are in the middle of the blade, interrupting the sterile pinnae. Interrupted Ferns do not all produce fertile pinnae every year
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: Possibly for Osmund, the Scandinavian waterman or Osmund, the Anglo-Saxon god of thunder  & for John Clayton, one of the earliest  plant collectors in Virginia

Osmunda regalis 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Common Names: Royal or Regal Fern
  • Location: Low to high elevations in wet woods & damp areas; uncommon
  • Form: Deciduous.  Distinctive. Leaf blade is bipinnate; pinnules are widely separated and rounded
  • Reproduction: A brown fertile blade arises from the apex of the fern
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: For “regal”

Osmundastrum cinnamomeum 

  • Common Name: Cinnamon Fern
  • Location: Low to high elevations in wet woods & damp areas; common
  • Form: Deciduous. Distinctive. Fronds grow in a crown. A large fern. Sterile pinnae are alternate & pinnate-pinnatifid with pointed tips. Tufts of rusty hairs may be present where the pinna meets the rachis
  • Reproduction: A tall brown fertile blade arises from the center of the fern in the spring and then dies back
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: Resembling the color of cinnamon

Phegopteris connectilis 

  • Common Names: Narrow Beech Fern; Northern Beech Fern
  • Location: High elevation rocky woods and ledges; uncommon
  • Form: Deciduous. In addition to its location at higher elevations, Narrow Beech Fern differs from  the Broad Beech Fern by being smaller and lacking the rachis wing between the lowest pairs of pinnae. Leaves are hairy & may turn reddish after frost
  • Reproduction: Round sori are located at margins of the pinnules
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: From the Greek phegos for “beech” & pteris for “fern”, & for “joined or connected”

Phegopteris hexagonoptera

  • Common Name: Broad Beech Fern
  • Location: Low to mid elevations in rich woods & river bottoms; common
  • Form: Deciduous.  Distinctive. Triangular blade angled almost horizontally. Pinnae are bipinnatifid; rachis is winged. Lowest pinnae pair inclined upwards
  • Reproduction: Small round sori are located at margins of the pinnules
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: For “six-angled”

Pleopeltis polypodioides

  • Common Name: Resurrection Fern
  • Location: Low elevations on trunks and upper branches of rough-barked trees; uncommon
  • Form: Evergreen. Pinnatifid. Dark green above; silvery and scaly below. Fronds curl up in dry weather and are “resurrected” after rain
  • Reproduction: Small round sori are located near the margins of the pinnae
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: For “full of scales” & from the Greek polys for “many” & pous for “foot”, possibly referring to bumps on the rhizome

Polystichum acrostichoide

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Common Name: Christmas Fern
  • Location: Everywhere! Common
  • Form: Evergreen. Distinctive. Sterile fronds are dark green & pinnate
  • Reproduction: Fertile fronds are dark green, taller & narrower than the sterile fronds. Sori are clustered on the underside of the fertile pinnae
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: For “many rows” & “spotted” referring to the sori covering the back of the pinnae of the fertile fronds

Polypodium appalachianum

  • Common Name: Appalachian Rock Cap Fern
  • Location: In dense colonies on sheltered rocks, but sometimes on roots or trunks of trees; common
  • Form: Evergreen. Pinnatifid. Blade widest at the base, narrowing towards the tip; pinnae have pointed tips. Bright green above, light green below, & lacking scales
  • Reproduction: Large, round, orange sori are slightly indented into the pinnae.
  • Can be confused with Polypodium virginianum, which differs in the number of chromosome sets present and the shape of the blade
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: For “many feet” referring to the root branching & “found in the Appalachians”

Polypodium virginianum

  • Common Name: Rock Cap Fern
  • Location: Low to mid elevations. Mostly on sheltered rocks, but sometimes on roots or trunks of trees.
  • Form: Evergreen. Pinnatifid. Blade widest near the middle or uniformly wide; pinnae have blunt tips. Bright green above, light green below, & lacking scales.
  • Reproduction: Large, round, orange sori are slightly indented into the pinnae
  • Can be confused with Polypodium appalachianum, which differs in the number of chromosome sets present and the shape of the blade
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: From “found in Virginia”

Pteridium aquilinum

  • Common Name: Bracken
  • Location: Dry open areas.; common
  • Form: Deciduous. Distinctive. Course, tough triangular blade branches into 3 parts. Pinnae are bipinnate or tripinnate
  • Reproduction: Sori are in lines under curled pinnule margins
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: For “small fern” & “eagle-like” referring to the appearance of the vasculature of the rhizome

Thelypteris noveboracensis

  • Common Name: New York Fern
  • Location: Low to mid elevations in woods, swamps, & moist meadows; common
  • Form: Deciduous. Grows in dense spreading clumps. Light green blade is narrow & tapers towards the base. Pinnae are pinnate-pinnatifid & hairy
  • Reproduction: Small horseshoe-shaped sori lie near the margins of the pinnules
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: For “female fern” & from “found in New York”

Woodwardia areolata

  • Common Name: Netted Chain Fern
  • Location: Low elevations in wet locations.
  • Form: Deciduous. Pinnatifid. Pinnae of sterile blades are alternate & connected to each other & the rachis by wings
  • Reproduction: A tall fertile blade bears narrow pinnae. The sori are located in 2 chain-like rows on each side of the mid-vein
  • Could be confused with Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis ), which has opposite pinnae and a different type of fertile blade
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: For British botanist Thomas Jenkinson Woodward& “with small open spaces” on stems or leaves

Photography by Jock Aplin, Ken Borgfeldt, David Heavner, Penny Longhurst, & Joe Standaert


Sources:

Cobb, Boughton; Farnsworth, Elizabeth; & Lowe, Cheryl: A Field Guide to the Ferns and their Related Families. Northeastern & Central North America. Second Edition. Houghton Mifflen Company, 2005.

Evans, Murray: Ferns of the Smokies. Great Smoky Mountain Association. 2005.

Friends of the Wild Flower Garden – Ferns of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden

Georgia Native Plant Society: Ferns

Gledhill, David : The Names of Plants. Cambridge University Press; 4th Edition, 2008 .

Hallowell, Anne C. & Hallowell, Barbara G.: Fern Finder. Nature Study Guild Publishers; Second Edition, 2001.

Hardy Fern Library

Small, John Kunkel: Ferns of the Vicinity of New York. Dover Publications, Inc., 1975.

Snyder, Lloyd H., Jr. & Bruce, James G.: Field Guide to the Ferns and Other Pteridophytes of Georgia. University of Georgia Press, 1986.

US Forest Service: Ferns

Wade, Gary; Nash, Elaine; McDowell, Ed; Goforth, Tom; Beckham, Brenda; & Crisafulli, Sharlys: Native Plants for Georgia, Part II: Ferns. The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension. Bulletin 987-2, August 2009

 

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