These ancient plants are often used in woody sites, beside streams and wet sites. Unlike higher plants, they do not produce seeds but reproduce through spores borne on the underside of the fronds (leaves). They drop to the ground and, if given enough moisture, develop into a multi-celled structure called a prothallus. It sends rhizoids through the ground which act as "roots" to absorb water and nutrients.

The prothallus eventually develops male and female organs. Sperm cells swim in rain water or dew to fertilize the egg cell in the female. This grows into a sporophyte which then grows the typical fern fronds and root system.

The spores are called fruiting bodies and they are formed in clusters called sporangia. Several of these cluster together to form a structure called a sorus (plural son). The type and arrangement of the son can be used to identify fern species.

Ferns also have various types of rhizomes and stems which may also be used in identification. Some rhizomes creep under the ground and new ferns emerge from the ground along their length. Others like the Christmas fern have short rhizomes so it appears that the new plants all emerge from a central crown. Small parts of the frond called pinnae also differ widely from one fern species to another.

Ferns need a moist soil and some will tolerate a wet site. Generally, they are not suited to full sun conditions and tend to thrive in a shaded location. Most of them prefer an acid soil with a pH of 6.0 or lower but a few like the Ebony spleenwort are said to prefer an alkaline soil.

Fern plants may be divided similar to the way other perennials are divided. The key is to not allow them to dry out during the process and to place them in a suitable new location. The best sites are those which nearly duplicate the conditions found in the fern's native habitat.

Keep ferns well watered throughout the growing season. If the soil has been properly amended with humus (compost), they should need little fertilization. Avoid heavy raking around the ferns since many of them have shallow rhizomes near the surface of the soil or actually growing in layers of leaf mold above the soil.

Be sure to plant only ferns which are rated as hardy for your climate zone to avoid any need for winter protection.

Like most perennials, ferns may be divided in the spring or fall for best results. During these times, the temperatures are cooler and the moisture levels are usually high. To divide ferns, dig them out of the ground and separate the rhizomes so that each division contains at least one frond, a rhizome section and roots.

Some ferns form small "bulblets" on the fronds. These structures are about the size of a pea and may be planted when ripe. It usually takes a couple of years for the plant is recognizable as the species. Bulblet Bladder Fern (Cystopteris bulbifera) is a species that reproduces this way.

Finally, a few species produce small buds on the edge or upper surface of the frond. In time, these will become small ferns while still attached to the parent plant. Transfer these to a pot containing vermiculite or perlite and keep them moist. In time, they will form roots and can be moved back into the garden.

Note: We have provided some general information and observations on this topic aimed at the home gardener. Before you take any serious action in your landscape, check with your state's land grant university's Cooperative Extension Service for the most current, appropriate, localized recommendations.

 

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