Fun with Ferns

By: Corrina Yobp

Hiking through the woods, sometimes we might be drawn to the vast scenic overlooks or gushing waterfalls at the end of the trail. While these natural beauties are fantastic, we often miss a lot of small wonders on our way to these destinations. The small wonders that catch my attention the most are ferns, which are so much more diverse than we realize at first glance.

Ferns are plants that reproduce using dust-like spores and have feathery leaves called fronds. In the spring of New Hampshire, their small, curling fiddleheads emerge from the forest floor before the fronds unroll into the typical fern shapes observable in the summer.

These plants can be tricky to identify, but given time and patience, anyone can spot the differences between ferns. The number of divisions or cuts in the smaller leaves that make up the frond can be a huge help in naming a specific type of fern, but there are many other indicators as well. I will share three of my favorite ferns in the area and tips on how you can identify them in your backyard or local park.

1. Christmas Fern

Christmas ferns are one of my favorites because they are evergreens, meaning that they stay green throughout the whole year to give the forest a little color on gloomy winter days. They grow on rocks or sandy soils in our forests. Each frond is only divided once, and each of these smaller leaves along the stem has a bump near the stem. This shape provides a good way to remember the name of the Christmas fern, with the bump representing Santa on his sleigh.

2. Sensitive Fern

Like the Christmas fern, sensitive ferns are also only divided once into waxy leaves. Sensitive ferns are named after how sensitive their leaves are to frost, and they grow in damp areas. They are light green with the wavy, smaller leaves of a frond’s stem appearing almost directly opposite to one another. Near the green leaves, you can find brown fronds that look all dried up with what look like beads along the top. These are the fertile fronds of sensitive ferns that can reproduce using spores, and they provide one more helpful hint for identifying this type of fern.

3. Cinnamon Fern

The cinnamon fern is named after its own fertile frond that is the color of cinnamon. This brown frond in the middle of the fern stands up straight with small clusters of spores on the stem. They are often large ferns with fronds cut twice that grow near rivers and in very wet areas. Looking closely at the small leaves, you can see white fuzz located where smaller stems are connected with the main stem. With all these unique features, cinnamon ferns are pretty easy to identify.

These three ferns are only a few examples of ferns that you might see in New Hampshire, and you have probably seen many others. If you are interested in learning more, check out the references at the end of this article and find some identification books geared toward ferns. The free app Seek is a good start in identification too, as it can identify plants based on pictures that you take on your hike. Remember that the best way to learn your ferns is to go outside and explore, so visit a New Hampshire State Park near you to practice all your new skills!

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Discover Power of Parks SCA Interpreters

Discover the Power of Parks is presented by New Hampshire State Parks in collaboration with the Student Conservation Association and AmeriCorps and made possible by generous financial support from Eversource. The program offers a look into the natural world through hands-on programming. Interpretive programs focus on connecting participants with nature and building appreciation for New Hampshire's unmatched natural heritage. Programs include guided hikes, interpretive tours, and imaginative environmental workshops for children and families. Programs are offered free to guests with paid park admission fee. No pre-registration is required.

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