Nature Nugget: A fondness for ferns

As the delicate colors of spring yield to summer’s deep greens, ferns—the lacy and lush inhabitants of the forest floor, wetlands, and cliffs—capture our attention, as they open from tight fiddleheads to majestic leaves.

The fiddleheads we savor in spring are the young, coiled up leaves of the ostrich fern, a tall, graceful fern common along rivers and in moist, rich upland forests. They appear in bottomlands in late April, and they last only a few short weeks. Once the fiddleheads have come unfurled, as most have by now, the leaves are bitter and are no longer good to eat.

fiddlehead fern fiddlehead

Ostrich fern fiddleheads, late April

ostrich fern center

Looking down on an unfurled ostrich fern “vase” in a floodplain on the Lamoille River

As it turns out, most ferns have fiddleheads. And they all unfurl in the same manner, opening up from a tight coil that formed late the previous summer and remained covered and protected just underground, all winter long.

Why are they called fiddleheads? Look at the scroll on the head of a violin and you’ll see the resemblance. Another name for them is crozier, like the head of a shepherd’s or bishop’s staff.
The fiddlehead is a clever mechanism for protecting the tender leaves from freezing—it’s like huddling in the snow. Keep your hands and arms close to your body and you’ll stay warmer.

Once the weather warms, the fiddleheads unfurl quickly and the leaves spread out, almost breathing a sigh of relief, to welcome the warm sunlight and begin their job of making food through photosynthesis. By early June, much of this unfurling has happened, but there are still plenty of ferns out there just finding their way out of the fiddlehead stage, especially at higher elevations and in cooler areas of Vermont. By July, most of the ferns are in full foliage, and many are also producing spores.

Here are some ferns that I’ve seen recently, in the fiddlehead stage and later, unfurled.

Lady Fern

Lady fern is a delicate, lacy fern found in all kinds of woods. Its unfurling frond looks more like a shepherd’s crook than a fiddlehead. Even at this stage, you can recognize it by the tiny black scales along the leaf stalk.

lady fern emerging

Lady fern unfurling

Sensitive fern

Sensitive fern, so called because it cannot tolerate even the lightest frost, can be almost reddish as it emerges, but is pure green at maturity.

sensitive fern fiddlehead

Sensitive fern fiddlehead

sensitive fern emerging

Sensitive fern unfurling

sensitive fern leaf in forest

Sensitive fern fully grown

sensitive fern turning red after frost

Sensitive fern tinged by a light frost

Long Beech Fern

Long beech fern is a tiny fern with a tiny fiddlehead, covered with brown scales that protect the tender fronds from the cold.

long beech fern crozier

Long beech fern has a tiny fiddlehead that is covered with protective scales

long beech fern

Long beech fern is a common fern in our forests

Cinnamon Fern

Cinnamon fern protects its delicate leaves with dense, cinnamon-colored fur that covers the fiddlehead. The spore-bearing leaf of cinnamon fern is a separate, cinnamon-colored stalk. Cinnamon fern grows in forested wetlands and other moist habitats.

cinnamon fern emerging

Cinnamon fern’s fiddleheads are protected with fuzzy hair.

Interrupted Fern

Interrupted fern is related to cinnamon fern, and its fertile part “interrupts” the green part. This fern grows in moist woods.

interrupted-fern-vermont

Interrupted fern is related to cinnamon fern, and its fertile part “interrupts” the green part. This fern grows in moist woods

-interrupted fern spore cases

Interrupted fern. Each tiny dot is a spore case that contains dozens of spores.

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Cinnamon Fern

Cinnamon fern and interrupted fern, though tending to slightly different habitats, can grow side by side.

cinnamon fern and interrupted fern growing in forest

Cinnamon fern with interrupted fern in the background

Vermont: 5th Ferniest State in the Country!

These are only a few of the many ferns to be found in the woods, wetlands, cliffs, and mountaintops in Vermont. One Vermont botanist was fond of saying “Vermont is the ferniest state in the union.” While Hawaii actually boasts that claim, Vermont surely is the ferniest state in New England, in terms of number of species (98 ferns and fern allies), and is the fifth ferniest state in the United States. Not a bad place to go hunting for ferns as the summer unfolds.