Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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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

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 subleaflets .

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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