Want to Learn the Ferns? Start Here

Today's article was written by Sharkbytes. She is an accomplished hiker, writer, and plant expert. Her general knowledge of nature is well-respected, and she can entertain as well as teach in any article she writes. After reading this article, I encourage you to follow the links at the bottom to find more from her. Read on.

Want to Learn the Ferns? Start Here

Ferns are fascinating, both in their shapes and their reproductive method. As is common in botany, learning a new group of plants can require you to learn a whole new vocabulary. But if you start simply, and just begin with applying the few new words to every fern you see, then when those words come easily, you can add another layer of knowledge.
Like most plants, ferns have stems and leaves. Unlike most plants, they do not have flowers; ferns reproduce by means of spores. But for now, just begin with stems and leaves.

Fern stems have two parts, the rachis (RAY-kiss) and the stipe. The stipe goes from the base of the plant to where the leaves start. The rachis is the part of the stem where the leaves are growing. Why do they have separate names? Sometimes, noticing how long the rachis is in comparison to the stipe is part of the identification process.

Click to Enlarge for the Triangles
Now let’s stop saying “leaves.” Ferns have compound leaves, which means that really, each entire stalk is a leaf. That is called a blade- see the red triangle. Each blade may have leaflets and these are called pinnae (PIN-uh)- see the yellow triangle. If each pinnae has even smaller leaflets, these are called pinnules (PIN-yules)- see the blue triangle.

So these are all the words for this lesson:
blade- the whole leaf
rachis- the stem where there is a leaf
stipe- the stem below the leaf
pinnae- leaflets
pinnules- subdivisions of the leaflets

Hart's-tongue Fern
Next time you look at a fern, just try to name these parts of the plant.  But ferns can be quite the little teasers. Not all ferns will have pinnae and pinnules. This is the last part of today’s lesson. A fern blade can be undivided, once divided, twice divided, or thrice divided. Very few are undivided. This means that the blade has just a single leaf, much like any other plant. On a casual glance you might not even think it was a fern. But you won’t see many of these. The picture is the very rare hart’s-tongue fern. It was wilting on a hot summer’s day, but I took it’s picture just to prove I had actually seen it in my lifetime.

Christmas Fern

A once-divided fern has pinnae with no teeth attached to the rachis. The fairly common fern called Christmas fern is a good example of this.

Beech Fern

On a twice-divided fern, each pinnae will have definite teeth or lobes of its own. The example is a beech fern.

Intermediate Wood Fern

For thrice-divided, each pinnae will have sub-leaflets. These are the laciest ferns, and the example is an intermediate wood fern.

Start with this information. Watch for ferns in the woods, in parks or gardens, even in the plant store! Make a game out of identifying these parts, and deciding how many times the fern is divided. Once you are comfortable with these words you are ready for the next step.

I recommend a small booklet called “The Fern Finder.” by Ann Hallowell for beginners. It has clear line drawings and a simple key that will train you to look for particular features.

Fern Finder: A Guide to Native Ferns of Central and Northeastern United States and Eastern Canada (Nature Study Guides)

To read more of the work of Sharkbytes, visit the following links. You'll find more articles like this one, as well as many other interesting articles. Please show us some support and tell her you came from Nature Center Magazine!

My Quality Day
Get Off The Couch
North Country Trail News


  1. What great information! I vaguely remember learning about ferns in biology class but I don't remember them being so interesting. Wonderful article.
    And welcome to Nature Center Magazine.

  2. Howdy, Sharkbytes. Good to have you here. You have given a good and basic lesson about ferns. I look forward to more from you.

  3. Thank you, Emma and Copas. I'm honored to be here.

  4. what a great post...i am a follower of this site and have links on my blog for this so I am happy in the knowledge that I will be able to read more of this in the future...Also it means I can be a little more informative with the children now instead of just saying, 'It's a fern'. Thanks.

  5. Thank you Sharkbytes for this wonderful article about ferns! I was privileged enough to get to study it a little bit extra, so my knowledge of ferns is off to a good start. You've given an excellent example of what we're trying to do here, which is showing off some of the talent of nature bloggers and writers from around the web.

  6. Great article, Sharkbytes! This is just the kind of thing I've always been curious about. If ever I find myself in Michigan, I'd definitely bug you to take me along on one of your hikes (not that I'd be able to keep up, lol). I'm sure I'd learn so much.

  7. Ivy- I would LOVE to hike with you. We could slow down lots and look at all kinds of things with Marguerite.


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