Meet The Fern Family

Take a walk in the woods wherever you live and you are sure to see several varieties of ferns lurking in the shade. Large or small, they give off a prehistoric vibe that I find very attractive. It feels like you are walking among dinosaurs and giant dragonflies. The effect is even better on a rainy day. Many of us grow ferns in our home gardens because they are easy to grow and we like the large fronds among the other plants.

The Victorians

And so did the Victorians. They even had a name for it: pteridomania. Collectors went wild for ferns in those days to use in herbariums (for dried specimens), to use in cut flower arrangements, gardens or potted plants.

Those who could afford it had Wardian cases (like a large terrarium) or glasshouses for their ferneries. But fern collecting became something everyone could do, and it was touted as a way to raise one’s intelligence. It became a social event that anyone could enjoy, and even unchaperoned young ladies could picnic with friends while searching for different varieties of ferns. There were numerous books published about ferns and the craze lasted about 50 years.

Wardian case. Wikipedia.

The term ‘pteridomania’ was coined in 1855 by Charles Kingsley. It referred to the craze for ferns and all things fern-like in Britain between 1840s and 1890s.

“The Victorian era was the heyday of the amateur naturalist. Pteridomania is generally considered a British eccentricity, but while it lasted, fern madness invaded all aspects of Victorian life. Ferns and fern motifs appeared everywhere; in homes, gardens, art and literature. Their images adorned rugs, tea sets, chamber pots, garden benches – even custard cream biscuits.”

– Source: Historic UK.

Ferns in Alaska

To be sure, there are other ornamental ferns, like the Japanese Pained Fern Athyrium spp. and cvs. (sub-species and cultivars). But here I want to talk out some of the locals, so back home in Alaska,

“Ferns abound in Alaska’s two national forests, the Chugach and the Tongass, which are situated on the southcentral and southeastern coast respectively. These forests contain myriad habitats where ferns thrive. Most showy are the ferns occupying the forest floor of temperate rainforest habitats. However, ferns grow in nearly all non-forested habitats such as beach meadows, wet meadows, alpine meadows, high alpine, and talus slopes.” The cool, wet climate highly influenced by the Pacific Ocean creates ideal growing conditions for ferns.”

From the Forest Service booklet, Ferns of National Forests in Alaska

A Few Varieties

Oak Fern         

Gymnocarpium dryopteris

From Greek gymnos (naked) andkarpos (a fruit). From the Greek drys = oak, and pteris = a fern. This one covers the forest floor and grows to under 12 inches. It comes up early in the Spring and makes a green glow in the woods.

Fougère polypode du chêne
Gymnocarpium dryopteris with Cornus canadensis. Photo: Alaska Guide

Ostrich Fern    

Matteuccia struthiopteris

Named in honor of Carlo Matteucci (1800-1868), an Italian physicist and struthiopteris, from the Greekstroutheios, “of an ostrich”, and pteris “fern”. This is the common name, from the resemblance of the fronds to the plumes of that bird of Africa. This is the fern whose edible “fiddleheads” are gathered and eaten in the Spring. This Summer I’ve seen ostrich ferns 5 feet tall!

Matteuccia struthiopteris
Fougère tête de violon
Matteuccia struthiopteris. Photo: Marian Owen.

Lady Fern

Athyrium filix-femina

Grows 2-4 feet tall. Leaflets start small near the base of the stipe, are longer in the middle, then taper to a point at the end, forming a diamond shape. Spores are produced on the underside of the leaves.

Genus name comes from Greek athyros meaning “doorless” in reference to the slowly opening hinged indusia (spore covers).  Specific epithet comes from Latin filix meaning fern and femina as expressed by the common name of Lady Fern.

Athyrium filix-femina

Spreading Wood Fern

Dryopteris dilatata

This is a deciduous fern forming an upright tuft of finely divided, broad, triangular, dark green fronds from a scaly rhizome. The erect or ascending rhizome often produces offshoots, which may be divided. More open and flattened than the vase-like Ostrich Fern.

Dryopteris dilitata. Photo: Pinterest.
“Fiddlehead” ferns carved out of ice for the Alaska Botanical Garden Brighter Winter Nights event.

Patrick Ryan is an Alaska Master Gardener and the Education Specialist for the Alaska Botanical Garden. A retired elementary school teacher, Patrick is a member of the Anchorage Community Forest Council and sits on the board for Alaska Agriculture in the Classroom.

3 comments on “Meet The Fern Family

  1. Alex K Baranowski

    sigh. ferns aren’t a family. they are a class
    families would be like Onocleaceae and Polypodiaceae, but technically all of the ferns in 1 grouping aren’t a “family”

  2. Ann T Dubas

    Our property has a wetland area with an established fern area that we consider to be the jewell of the property. It includes massive ferns and other wetland plants, notably skunk cabbage. As we speak, I am trying every day to pull the Japanese stilt grass out without creating too much wreckage with my feet!

  3. Great article. It’s nice to promote our won native flora to show how beautiful it really is.

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