General Topics

Ferns and Fern Allies of Missouri

Biology of a Fern

Biologically, ferns are kind of like a cross between mosses or algae, and flower plants. Ferns and fern allies have a vascular system for nutrient and water transportation within the plant. They don’t however, have flowers, fruits, or seeds. Instead, ferns reproduce through spore distribution (Andre).

Ferns produce spores in tiny, one-cell thick capsules called sporangia. These sporangia generally grow in dark patches called sori on the underside of the front segment or on separate stalks. When the sporangia mature and die, wind and water disperse the spores, allowing the plant to reproduce and pass on its genes to a new plant (Andre).

Within its a lifetime, a fern plant will produce millions, sometimes even billions, of spores. Like most seeds, spores will begin to germinate in a damp surface or area. In order to germinate, they produce a prothallus— a green tissue less than half an inch long. On the underside of this prothallus, the ferns’ gametes (eggs and sperm) are produced in separate areas within the prothallus. When in a film of water, these gametes will come together on the prothallus to make an embryonic plant that will eventually develop into a fern (Andre). Because of this need for a thin film of water, ferns tend to germinate in damp, shady areas (Pinson).

When this embryonic plant begins to develop into a fern, it unfurls from the ground in a very distinct way called circinate vernation. When the new frond emerges from the rhizome, it is coiled up. It slowly unfurls from this coil, straightening and elongating as it does so. These young, coiled ferns have become known as “fiddle heads” (Key).

Anatomy of a Fern

The basic anatomy of a fern consists of roots, a rhizome, and a frond, or more simply, roots, stem, and leaves (Key). The frond is the leafy part of the plant, made up of the stipe and the blade. The stipe, more commonly referred to as the petiole in other plants, is the stalk that connects the leafy portion to the base of the plant. The blade is the rest of the frond that contains the leafy tissue, divided on into two sides by the rachis, or extension of the stipe through the blade. The rhizome, often called the rootstock, is the underground stem system from which the leaves are produced and the wiry roots diverge downwards. Year after year, this intricate network sends up leaves, even if fronds die and drop off, making it perennial. The rhizome is attached directly to the stipe. The roots extend below the rhizome just like any other root system, gathering water and nutrients for the plant’s survival (Key).

Ferns are particularly difficult to identify because of their diverse range in leaf structure. Some ferns, like a walking fern, are simple, often lobed. Others, like the bracken fern, are compound, often several times divided. In addition to their diverse structure, ferns exist in a wide range of leaf length, from 1/16 inches long (in an azolla fern) to almost five feet long (in a bracken fern).

Within each fern species, there is generally dimorphism, or two different forms of fronds on the same plant. One type of dimorphism is where there are two different pinnae, or particular sections on the frond, that differ in accordance to whether they are fertile or sterile. The fertile pinnae is the section of the frond that contains the sporangia. It’s generally slightly different in shape and size from the sterile pinnae, which is the section of the frond that extends down to the stipe and does not contain sporangia (Key). The other type of dimorphism is where there is a distinct modified frond for the sporangia called the fertile frond. In this case, the fertile frond has a different shape and general appearance than the sterile frond, but is connected at the rhizome. The sporangia generally appear on the underside of the fertile frond, or in the case of aquatic ferns, in a highly modified leaf called a sporocarp (Key).

Habitats, Then and Now

Ferns as a family are ancient. They were first found nearly 400 million years ago, and there are around 12,000 species worldwide (Andre).

They can be found in a wide range of habitats, but most commonly in shady, moist areas due to their need for a thin film of water for germination. They can even be found on or at the base of trees. Ferns and fern allies derive from several different geographic origins, such as northern forests, drier regions of the southwest, moist tropical forests of central America and the Caribbean. The habitat in which each species thrives often gives indication for where it originated (Andre).

Species of Ferns and Fern Allies in Missouri


Walking Fern,

Walking Fern (Asplenium rhizophyllum)

The walking fern is named after the way that it spreads, in a walking-like manner. The parent’s leaves are long and cordate (triangular in shape, tapering to a thing point) and curl up and over to touch the ground. At the tip of the frond, where the leaf tissue touches the ground, a fertile pinnae contains spores and releases them to start new platelets in the nearby soil (Hilty). The leaves have entire margins and are undivided. They are usually found in low light habitats and in high pH rocks and soils (Key).

Bracken Fern,

Bracken Fern (Pteridium aqnilinum)

Found throughout the world in temperate and tropical climates, bracken fern is probably one of the most commonly distributed types of ferns. Its rootstocks have been measured to spread underground up to around 1300 feet in length and the fronds up to a hight of 16 feet, making it one of the largest plants in the world (Yatskievych). Because of this extensive root system, bracken ferns are almost impossible to remove, thus making them a tenacious colonizer, even noted as an invasive species in some places. It has been known to be used for thatching for houses, as the leaves are large and fringed. It has also been cooked as a vegetable in some types of Asian cuisine. If not cooked, bracken is may be harmful, as it contains a number of poisonous and carcinogenic compounds (Yatskievych). There are around ten subspecies of bracken, but the species commonly found in Missouri is the tailed bracken.

Mosquito Fern,

Mosquito Fern (Azolla)

The Azolla, one of the few aquatic fern genuses with fronds less than in inch in length, gets its common name “mosquito fern” from its tendency to cover the surfaces of bodies of fresh standing water, preventing mosquitoes (and other insects) from enter the water to lay eggs (Yatskievych, 2018). Particularly in bodies of water rich with nutrients, this fern is highly productive, forming a dense mat along the surface of the water. Despite being a native plant, it is often considered invasive because of the rapidity at which it grows and reproduces. It’s easily distinguishable by its green or red opposite leaves and its double lobed frond—one lobe above water and one below. The upper lobe often becomes home to colonies of cyanobacterium, a bacteria that captures atmospheric nitrogen and converts it into nitrate fertilizer. This symbiotic relationship piqued the interest of rice farmers of Southeast Asia years and years ago, and it has been widely used ever since to stimulate agricultural production in their rice paddies. Scientists also believe that the mosquito fern may have made a dramatic impact on the climate almost 50 million years ago. CO2 levels were rising and the sea levels were rising in response. However, it is theorized that mosquito ferns boomed in population, reproduced rapidly over the newly aquatic landscape, and absorbed almost half of the atmospheric CO2 (lowering it from about 3000 ppm to 1500 ppm (Jennifer Huizan, 2018)). This became nicknamed the “Azolla Event.” Some scientists are experimenting today with Azolla in the hopes of using it to aid in the reduction of greenhouse gases. Other scientists think that Azolla may be the “superfood of the future” because of its high nutritional value crossed with its minimal land and resource requirements.

Cinnamon Fern,

Cinnamon Fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum)

This fern gets its common name from its color. The fertile fronds, which look drastically different from the sterile fronds, originate as a bright green color then eventually turn brown or cinnamon colored. The sterile fronds also turn a yellowish color in autumn. Generally, this fern grows to be about 2-3 feet in height and width, but can reach up to 5 feet tall at optimal conditions of constant moisture. The cinnamon fern’s primary habitat is wet areas, along ponds and streams, as well as in shaded woodland areas (Missouri Botanical Garden).

Royal Fern,

Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis)

This plant has distinct broad fronds with well-separated leaflets, making them look like a member of the pea family. Each plant has separate sterile and fertile fronds. The sterile fronds are much bigger and broader. The fertile fronds have several sterile leaflets, tipped by brown, tassel-like, fertile clusters that contain the plant’s spores. Because of these clusters’ strong resemblance of groups of flowers, royal ferns are often also nicknamed “flowering ferns.” Plants usually range from 2-3 feet in height and width and 6 feet under optimal conditions of constant moisture. It is native to Missouri, deciduous, and is mostly found in the southeastern Ozark region (Missouri Botanical Garden).

Ostrich Fern,

Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)

Known for their big ostrich feather-like plumes, ostrich ferns can be found in temperate climates within Missouri, as well as all over the world. It has a unique structure made up of a vertical crown from which the sterile fronds extend and encircle the fertile spike frond. The fertile frond, with a dark, spiked, beadlike appearance, is located in the middle of the sterile fronds persists through winter and releases its spores in the spring. Ostrich ferns are commonly planted as ornamental plants in the garden for their thick plume-like fronds. They are known to spread widely from their rootstock (Key 112).

Maidenhair Fern,

Maidenhair Fern (Aidantum)

The fronds of this fern look quite different from most other ferns, as they have delicate, hanging fronds with two times pinnately compound, kidney shaped blades. Leaflets are alternate along the rachis as well as along the stems that branch off of the rachis. The sterile leaflets are variously lobed at the apex or along one side, entire or minutely toothed (Steyermark 146). The fertile leaflets’ margins are, on the other hand, mostly entire. The sporangia appear on the underside of the lobes of these leaflets. The veins of the leaflets, which branch dichotomously several times, can be seen easily with the naked eye. This is one of the most common and widespread ferns in Missouri (Steyermark 146).

Christmas Fern, photo by Mae Hubel

Christmas Fern, spores on underside, photo by Mae Hubel

Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)

This fern gets its name from its yearlong green color; its fronds are often used for decorative purposes during during the Christmas season. Its leaflets have minute to coarse teeth (Key). The fertile pinnae and sterile pinnae are on the same frond. The fertile pinnae appear at the end of the blade, with narrower leaflets than the lower sterile pinnae and two rows of spores lining the underside of the pinnae (Key). Each pinna is auriculate at the base (Key). In other words, it contains a thumb-shaped lobe on one side at the base of each leaflet. Christmas ferns can be found in both moist and dry, preferably shaded areas. We found quite a few Christmas ferns in the wooded Lewis and Clark Trail on a November trip.

Fern Allies

Common Horsetail,


Horsetails are particularly unique because they have hollow stems with several canals running up and down. The leaves of horsetails are joined at a whorled collar-shaped joint at regular intervals along the main stem. At the joints, there are also sheaths with black triangular teeth along the upper rim, encasing the next segment of the stem. The tips of the fertile fronds contain spore-bearing tips, characteristic by their inch-long, light brown cones with spore-bearing bumps. The fertile shoots are unbranched and shorter, and they usually develop during mid-spring and die out once they release their spores (Hilty). The sterile fronds develop around a similar time, but remain throughout the fall. They about twice as tall as the fertile fronds, and they have the branching, whorled structure at their joints (Hilty). Unlike most other ferns, horsetails thrive in dry and gravelly areas, rather than solely damp and temperate areas.



This family of lycophytes (or fern allies) have spores and spiky leaves, arranged spirally around one central strand. Most quillworts spend at least part of the year, if not all, growing submerged in water. The leaves of the plant grow from a cormlike base, or a vertical, underground stem. Terrestrial species of quillworts usually grow in seasonally wet habitats. Once the soil dries, the main part of the plant dies back to the cormlike base. At the inner surface of each leaf base, there’s a large saclike spore case that’s sunk into a pit. Some sterile quillwort hybrids exist, but some of them have been able to reproduce through a process called chromosome doubling (Yatskievych).

Uses of Ferms

People used to try to use ferns for medicinal uses, but today these methods aren’t backed up by any scientific evidence. Nowadays, ferns are mainly used for decorations, weaving, dying, soap, glass, fertilizer, and in some places food. Fiddleheads, or young ferns whose leaves are still tightly curled up, are commonly used in cuisine. Royal ferns, among others, are commonly used for their fiddleheads. They are said to taste like asparagus. Osmunda fiber, or the brown colored fiber coming from the roots of cinnamon and royal ferns, is often used in the potting of orchids.

Azolla ferns have been used for centuries in agriculture, specifically in the rice paddies of eastern Asia. Because of the cyanobacterium living within the body fo these ferns, it participates in a symbiotic relationship that provides the bacteria with an environment to live and the aquatic fern with a supply of fixed nitrogen. This symbiotic relationship is particularly unique because it is the “only known symbiosis in which cyanobacterium passes directly to subsequent generations via the plant’s reproductive sporangia and spores” (The Azolla Foundation).


Andre, Cynthia. “Missouri Ferns.” Missouri Department of Conservation, 1 Mar. 2003. [Accessed 15 Dec. 2018].

Hilty, John. “Walking Fern.” Grasses, Sedges, Rushes, & Non-Flowering Plants in Illinois, 11 May 2018. [Accessed 15 Dec. 2018].

Jennifer Huizen, C. (2018). Can the Fern That Cooled the Planet Do It Again?. [online] Scientific American. [Accessed 8 Nov. 2018].

Key, James S. Field Guide to Missouri Ferns. Missouri Dept. of Conservation, 1982.

Pinson, Jerald. “About Ferns.” American Fern Society. [Accessed 15 Dec. 2018].

Steyermark, Julian A. Flora of Missouri. Vol. 1, Iowa State University Press, 1996.

Yatskievych, George. “Bracken.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 15 Dec. 2017. [Accessed 8 Nov. 2018].

Yatskievych, George. “Mosquito Fern.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 15 Dec. 2017. [Accessed 8 Nov. 2018].

Yatskievych, George. “Quillwort.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 15 Dec. 2017. [Accessed 8 Nov. 2018].

“Osmundastrum Cinnamomeum.” Missouri Botanical Garden. [Accessed 15 Dec. 2018].

“Osmundastrum Regalis.” Missouri Botanical Garden. [Accessed 15 Dec. 2018].

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