Ferns are one of the oldest plants on Earth, with over 10,000 known species to date, and an estimated 5,000 more that have yet to be discovered. Whether you come across one on a shady walk through a forest or in a pot near a sunny window in your home, these ubiquitous plants with fanning leaves are appreciated by many and are sure to delight for centuries to come.
What Are Ferns?
An ancient species well over 300 million years old, ferns are a type of vascular plant that can be found in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, from 80-foot tall trees to tiny plants that measure less than an inch. Like most other plants, they have stems and leaves. They also have roots known as rhizomes, which are long, stem-like formations that grow underground and sprout leaves directly out of them.
Additionally, ferns never flower and don't rely on seeds to reproduce. Instead, ferns procreate through their spores, which open up when they're ripe and spray outward to spread. These spores are carried by winds, which drop a small amount of them to appropriate areas in which they can germinate and form sexual plants.
How to Identify Ferns
Although highly adaptable to live in spaces ranging from rocky caves to shady forests, ferns are most commonly found in tropical areas because of their tendency to thrive in warm, damp conditions. Like all plants, ferns require water and sunlight to survive but do best in areas that provide ample shade and frequent moisture, like jungles. Some are able to adapt to less suitable terrain, but most ferns tend to be sparse in high altitudes or dry conditions.
Most types of ferns are easily spotted by their ornate leaves, which are known as fronds. Each frond contains a long, main stem from which small divisions, called pinnae, grow. This often gives the appearance of hundreds of leaves, made to appear even more abundant by a fern's lush, bushy body. Some varieties, however, have no leaves at all, like whisk ferns, which resemble a bare stem covered in small dots or bulbs. If you aren't sure if you're looking at a fern, a peek at the underside may reveal small brownish bumps, or spores, which are commonly found on ferns.
As far as their relationship to humans, ferns don't really serve much purpose other than as decorative items. Their primary contribution from an economic standpoint is to the horticulture industry, which cultivates millions of fern plants to sell for personal use. In some parts of the world, specific types of ferns are eaten, like the ostrich fern of North America. While most ferns are harmless, some varieties have been identified as carcinogenic, and some, like the bracken, a poisonous species, is considered an invasive weed.