Native Ferns

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​​​​​​​​​ 3875 E. Huron River Drive, Ann Arbor, MI 48104


Tina Stephens,
Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator

Becky Hand,
Stewardship Specialist

Rachel Maranto,
NAP Supervisor

These are only some of the native ferns you could choose for your landscape- check with local gardeners, nurseries, and other plant experts for more!  See the Resources section on our Native Plants page for some good places to start.

As a point of interest, we also mention how Native Americans and pioneers used some of these plants for food or medicine.  However, this is not meant as a promotion of their use in this way today.  Historical records may be inaccurate or unclear, and the reader should not interpret this information as being an endorsement of that use being safe. 

Each fern is linked to its profile at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.  All links will open in a new window.

Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum)

Broad beech-fern (Phegopteris hexagonoptera, Thelypteris h.)
This fern typically grows on well-drained, wooded slopes, so it will do better than some in drier garden sites. It will tolerate some moisture and prefers a shadier location.  The single fronds can be as much as 15­–18" long, and their striking triangular shape with downward pointing lower leaflets is an attractive addition to a woodland garden.  It will spread readily through rootstock when planted in an area to its liking.

Bulblet fern (Cystopteris bulbifera)
This delicate fern grows on calcareous, rocky slopes and along stream banks, but it will readily adapt to a garden setting.  Its narrow fronds are clustered together at the base and they gradually taper to the somewhat drooping tip.  In addition to reproducing by spores like other ferns, this fern grows vegetative bulblets on the underside of the frond. When these bulblets drop off and have soil contact they can produce a new plant without going through the typical fern life cycle.  It’s beautiful when growing in masses in a shady location.

Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)
Christmas fern is one of the most common ferns in the eastern United States.  This evergreen fern is typically found on dry, infertile, rocky, wooded slopes.  Its deep green fronds with their lustrous leaflets grow upright to 12–18", becoming progressively more prostrate as fall approaches.  This sturdy fern has two connections to Christmas: its evergreen leaves have been commonly used in Christmas decorations, and each individual leaflet that makes up the frond is shaped like a tiny, green Christmas stocking. 

Cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea)
This fern, already a garden favorite, prefers moist to wet soils where it will spread readily.  It produces tall, firm, dark green, glossy fronds that grow upright, often reaching heights of 5'.   This is another common fern in the eastern United States.  The stem of each frond is covered with an orange-brown “fuzz” that disappears as it ages and gives this fern its common name.  The roots can be very large, sending up clusters of large fronds.  The spore-producing frond that appears in the center of this plant looks very different from the vegetative fronds and can be decorative in the winter when it remains standing after the other fronds die back in the fall.  Cinnamon fern is very attractive when its tall, arching fronds are seen next to the water’s edge.  It is also a very desirable fern for the shady woodland garden and should be planted in a large space with other plants that are appropriate for a fern this tall.

Ebony spleenwort (Asplenium platyneuron)
An inhabitant of dry woods and old fields with slightly acid soil, this fern has two types of fronds.  The smaller sterile fronds lay at the ground's surface while the larger fertile ones stand erect.  These leathery evergreen fronds are usually less than 2” wide and the leaflets are not at all cut or lobed, giving this fern a unique ladder-like appearance.  The stalk and central axis are shiny, blackish brown, hence the common name.  

Fragile fern (Cystopteris fragilis)
Fragile fern is often found on wooded slopes but will also tolerate a sunny site. Since its light green fronds are usually less than 1’ tall, be sure to place it where it won’t be overwhelmed by larger neighboring plants.  In nature it grows in clumps and looks like a miniature lady fern.  This fern may disappear during the heat of the summer and then re-emerge in the fall.

Interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana)
Interrupted fern is a relative of the cinnamon fern though it will only grow to 4' in its preferred habitat of swamps or stream borders.  It will grow in all light conditions.  As its common name describes, this striking fern is distinguished by the dark brown spores clustered close to the stalk in the center of each frond, where they interrupt broad sterile leaflets.  Like cinnamon fern, the stems of new fronds are covered with dense orange-brown hairs that drop as the leaflets mature.  This fern is better suited for growing in the woodland garden because it does not require soils that are as acidic or as wet as other Osmunda species.

Lady fern, northern (Athyrium filix-femina)
This pretty fern is adapted to a variety of habitats but grows best in moist woods.  It is a common woodland fern whose fronds grow in spreading, vase-shaped clumps.  It can be highly variable, producing fronds from 1–4' feet tall.  The individual leaflets are thin-textured and bright green.  This deceptively delicate-looking fern is hardy and remains a welcome addition to woodland gardens where there is adequate space.

Maidenhair fern, northern (Adiantum pedatum)
This fern typically grows in rich, woodland soils in undisturbed areas.  It is striking and beautifully delicate, having a shiny purple-brown stem contrasting with light green leaflets.  Each frond grows upright to about 1' tall, where it divides into two curved stems that together form a U-shape.  The thin-textured leaflets fan out along the main stem.  These unique fronds grow and mature in loose rows from a creeping rootstock.  Northern maidenhair fern is wonderful in any woodland garden, and is so distinctive it should be planted in an area where its beauty can be easily seen and appreciated. 

Marsh fern (Thelypteris palustris)
True to its common name, marsh fern is only found in wetland situations.  The fronds emerge individually from a creeping rhizome so it is best to let this fern roam about in a wetland planting.  Its lacy-cut, light green fronds will add texture to grasses and sedges growing in a wet meadow or along a pond edge.

Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)
Ostrich fern prefers rich, wet woods and swamps.  It is a tall, strikingly dramatic fern whose rich green fronds arise from creeping rootstock in a vase-like group.  Each frond, or leaf, typically grows to 3' but can reach 7–8' under the right conditions and is shaped somewhat like an ostrich plume.  The brown fertile frond, arising at the center of each cluster, is much shorter than the green sterile fronds.  This beautiful fern will spread and should be planted where it has room to roam. 

Royal fern (Osmunda regalis)
In nature royal fern prefers very acidic soils in wet places such as swamps, bogs, and shallow pools.  It is also found at the edge of marshes and streams and will grow in a range of light conditions.  This fern is the only one in the northeastern United States with such large widely spaced leaflets, giving it a markedly unique appearance.  Its erect, clustered fronds have a blue-green tint and seem delicate in spite of the size of the individual leaflets.  The spore cases for this species appear in erect, branched clusters at the top of the fronds.  This fern is quite beautiful in large-scale settings, particularly if it is planted in large groupings in a bog or water garden.

Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis)
Sensitive fern prefers wet places where it will rapidly spread, but stays more contained if planted in a drier garden.  The frond is a thin-textured single leaf with a deeply lobed, yellow-green blade.  The fronds arise in rows from a creeping rootstock and grow to 2' tall.  This species also has a separate, unusual, and decorative fertile frond where the brown, bead-like spore cases are arranged in two vertical rows.  With its lobed fronds, sensitive fern has a much coarser character than many other species and adds a unique visual accent in the garden.  It is most pleasing to the eye when planted near water or in moist soils where it can flourish.  This species is generally a great performer even in heavier soils. 

Woodfern, crested (Dryopteris cristata)
Crested fern grows in wetter woods and shady marshes.  Its narrow fronds stand nearly vertical and have broad triangular leaflets that are widely spaced. These leaflets are tilted horizontally like an open Venetian blind so its appearance is quite striking.  Place its light green fronds in front of a darker plant or background to maximize the effect.

Woodfern, Goldie’s (Dryopteris goldiana

Woodfern, spinulose (Dryopteris carthusiana)
This fern is probably the most common of all our woodland ferns and is also one of the most variable.  Its broad, lacy-cut fronds are held upright in a classic vase shape.  It can be used as an individual point of interest in the garden, or grouped to give the feeling of a peaceful woodland glade.