Bracken, Maidenhair and Walking Ferns
Nature Bulletin No. 673-A April 1, 1978
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
BRACKEN, MAIDENHAIR AND WALKING FERNS
A year ago, in Bulletin No. 633-A, we pointed out that ferns were the
first plants on earth to have a true root system and a system of channels
-- vascular tissues -- that conduct water and dissolved chemicals from
the roots to the leaves where food is manufactured by means of
specialized cells containing chlorophyll.
The Bracken or Brake, most widely distributed of all ferns, is common
in Great Britain, continental Europe, Africa, and throughout North
America. Most ferns are found in rich, moist shady places and
limestone cliffs but not bracken. It prefers and thrives on poor barren
soils, sandy semi-shaded ridges, old pastures, dry open woodlands and
burned-over areas. We have lots of this "weed" in the Palos preserves
and those in southeastern Cook County.
It is one of the earliest ferns to appear in spring and continues to
produce big coarse leathery leaves, some erect and some nearly
horizontal, until killed by the first frost in autumn. The leaves, from 3 to
5 feet tall, have three triangular parts and each of these is cut into
segments which, except near their tips, are cut again into narrow
This is one of the few kinds of ferns with any practical value. It is used
for packing fruits and vegetables because it seems to retard mildew and
decay, and by florists. In Europe, where in some places it becomes
much taller, bracken is extensively used for thatching roofs and as
bedding for animals. The Japanese relish the coiled fonds or
"fiddleheads" when they appear in spring, as tender and delicious as
asparagus tips, and Ojibwe Indians use them in soup. Their hunters eat
nothing but that soup when stalking deer. Ojibwe women drink a tea
made from its toasting leaves to relieve headaches; and make a strong
decoction of the leaves for expelling worms. The long tough rhizomes
were woven into baskets.
The lovely Maidenhair Fern is famous for the unique pattern, like a lacy
fan, of its delicate leaves. Most abundant in limestone country, it grows
in the rich moist soil of deep woods such as our Busse Forest, and often
in ravines. The slender stalk. sometimes two feet tall, is black or
reddish-black and shiny. At the top it divides into two oppositely
curving branches that bear 5 or 6 leaflets on their outer rims, and the
leaflets are divided into fragile bluish-green subleaflets.
There are 226 species of maidenhair ferns, all but 5 of them tropical,
and some of those are giants. Ours is widely distributed from Alaska
and northern Canada to Georgia and Louisiana. The Southern or Venus
Maidenhair Fern, equally lovely, extends from tropical America to
Florida and California.
There are several peculiar kinds of ferns that do not look like ferns at
all. One of those oddities is the unique and rather rare Walking Fern. It
is found here only on ledges of the limestone gorge at Camp Sagawau
but a few plants occur on limestone cliffs along the Kankakee River and
elsewhere in northern Illinois.
It produces clusters of narrow tapering evergreen leaves that are not
divided into leaflets and have long slender tips. It not only produces
spores but each tip, arching outward and hairlike at the end, may take
root on mossy rock and start a new plant. Eventually those new plants,
each with its own leaves and shallow roots, separates from the parent's
leaf tip. None of our other ferns does this.
Never disturb a fern. Love 'em and leave 'em.
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Update: June 2012