Where the Winter Ferns Grow

Winter can mean rain or snow, wind or stillness, sun or darkness. But in the valley and foothill portions of our region – winter also means ferns. From the first late fall rains through to the heat of summer gardens and native areas enjoy the lush green reawakening of many of the California natives ferns so apt to be dormant in summer. Photo: Goldback fern (Pentagramma triangularis) with mature spores.

Perhaps it is their graceful forms, their exquisite detail or the exuberant range of my favorite color – green – which ferns display so richly, perhaps it is their ability to exist and thrive in almost all climates and conditions of the planet – from damp, dark woodlands to exposed rocky alpine crevices, perhaps it is the ancient history of ferns dating back hundreds of millions of years, perhaps it is their resilience – their tendency to appear out of nowhere after months of having looked like nothing and with the return of water they “resurrect” themselves into beautiful complex flourishing life once again. Whatever it is, I find ferns fascinating and lovely. Photo: The linked fronds of a Five-Fingered Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum hispidulum).

Their form, function, facts all coalesce into these life forms that make me stop – admire, look very closely and declare for the 10,000th time: Oh my goodness, plants are so amazing. Life, and all its permutations and possibilities, is: Amazing. Photo: Young frond of a goldback fern (Pentagramma triangularis).

According the American Fern Society: “Ferns have been with us for more than 300 million years and in that time the diversification of their form has been phenomenal. Ferns grow in many different habitats and the Carboniferous Period from 350 to 290 million years ago is sometimes referred to as the age of ferns because they dominated plant life at that time. Today, there are about 12,000 known species of ferns.” Photo: California native maidenhair fern (Adiantum raddianum ‘Pacific Maid’). Maidenhair ferns hold their spore packets on the outward most edge of the tips of their fronds and these appear as curled, yellow or dark brown dried spots.

Time-tested ferns not only offer us in the North State the pleasure of fresh green new life in the garden and on the trail in the winter season, but are fascinating botanical histories in themselves. Their complex structures have striking similarities to as well as differences from the flowering plants with which we are perhaps more familiar. Photo: The distinctive coloring of variegated shield fern (Arachniodes simplicior ‘Variegata’) in Emile White’s garden.

The ‘fiddleheads’ we are familiar with as the emerging fern, is described nicely by Project Gutenberg’s The Fern Lover’s Companion, by George Henry Tilton: “All true ferns come out of the ground head foremost, coiled up like a watch-spring, and are designated as “fiddle-heads,” or crosiers. (A real crosier is a bishop’s staff.) Some of these odd young growths are covered with “fern wool,” which birds often use in lining their nests. This wool usually disappears later as the crosier unfolds into the broad green blade. The development of plant shoots from the bud is called vernation (Latin, ver meaning spring), and this unique uncoiling of ferns, ‘circinnate vernation.'” Photo: Woodland fern fiddle head.

The frond is the “leaf” of a fern and is the part we see as we wander through the woods or garden. The frond is divided into two main parts, the stipe (leaf stalk) and the blade (which is the leafy expanded portion of the frond). Fern blades can range from completely undivided to very finely cut, and each degree of division on the blade structure has a specific name. Photo: The underside of a California native giant chain fern (Woodwardia fimbriata), whose common name derives from the arrangement of spore packets.

Fronds vary greatly in size, from tree ferns with 12-foot fronds to the mosquito ferns with fronds only 1/16 of an inch long. Photo: The petite serpentine fern (Aspidotis densa).

Fossil evidence indicates that ferns first evolved as the planet was transitioning from predominately water- to land-based life forms, and as a result ferns developed the ability – and need – to reproduce with the presence of water. While they are vascular plants, they are not flowering plants and as such do not bear flowers or reproduce by seed. Ferns reproduce by wind or water-borne tiny, tiny – sometimes microscopic – spores. Photo: The fiddle head of a holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum).

Spores are generally produced on the underside of fern fronds in structures called sori. Sori are made up of tiny structures called sporangia. The sori are arranged in organized often distinctive and lovely patterns. Ferns drop millions, often times billions of spores during their lives but of course only a small few find locations and conditions in which they can germinate and grow on successfully. Photo: Sori on this fern appear as droplets.

The life cycle of a fern from the development and maturation of spores to unfurling fronds is complex and differs from that of other vascular plants in a few critical ways. The fern we recognize is the sporophyte. A sporophyte produces spores, which germinate to become a gametophyte a small and indistinct green growth. The gametophyte grows to be a small spreading plant, which could almost be mistaken for a lichen. Gametophytes bear male and female sex cells which ultimately come together to form a new sporophyte. With this complexity in mind, ferns are able to be propagated both by spore germination and rhizomatously, by growing bulbils along. Photo: The wooly end of an almost unfurled fern frond.

Many gorgeous and hardy ferns are suited to the North State Garden and they add seasonal drama, texture and interest. Veteran gardener, plantswoman and native plant enthusiast, Emilie White of Chico has been growing her collection of more than 21 fern varieties for many years. Many of hers are California natives and so apt to be dormant in summer and active in winter.

Almost all of Emilie’s ferns are in dappled light beneath larger trees or shrubs. She feeds her entire garden with alfalfa pellets in late winter/early spring, top-dresses with home-made or organic compost up to twice a year, and will sometimes giver her ferns a dose of fish emulsion. “Don’t be too tidy. Let the natural duff of leaves and pine needles self-mulch around your ferns. Dead head fronds as needed – like a haircut,” she says. But even a veteran gardener like Emilie will sometimes lose a fern and not know why. “And then sometimes you think you’ve lost one – and a tiny fiddle-head will appear out of what looked like dead root ball.” Emilie does not water in winter unless absolutely necessary and waters approximately two times a week in summer. Photo: The red-tips of a young fern frond.

Northern California native ferns include:

Western or giant chain fern (Woodwardia fimbriata), western sword fern (Polystichum munitum), California maidenhair fern (Adiantum jordanii), five fingered fern (Adiantum aleuticum), gold back Fern (Pentagramma triangularis) and Indian’s dream or serpentine fern (Aspidotis densa)
Photo: Spori pattern on a holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum).

Good reference books about ferns include:

“Native Ferns, Moss & Grasses”, by William Cullina (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), and

“The Encyclopedia of Garden Ferns” by Sue Olsen, (Timber Press, 2007).

Photo: Lady fern (Athyrium felix-femina)

Some Good Fern Websites Include:

American Fern Society

The Hardy Fern Foundation

The Hardy Fern Library

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell
In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.
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4 Responses

  1. Avatar KarenC says:

    Great photos of ferns Jennifer. They, along with moss growing everywhere in a moist rain forest asmophere are my favorite plants.

  2. Avatar Ginny says:

    Living in Western WA for a number of years, the one thing I enjoy wasn't the rain, but the beautiful ferns that it produced, plus their trillium flowers I had in my front yard, which l kept as though it was a park. setting with paths among the trees.

  3. Avatar JH says:

    One of the best places to view multiple kinds of ferns is at Fern Canyon, outside of Orick on Hwy 101. The hike is fairly easy, and the plant and wildlife are simply gorgeous. In addition to the ferns, there is an abundance of different kinds of mushrooms that are beautiful, yet strange at the same time. Nature is amazing!

  4. Avatar Liz says:

    Thank you so much for your wonderful information on ferns– I have recently developed an interest in them so this is timely. : )