What makes ferns different from other types of plants? Where do they grow? What can you notice about ferns to help you tell them apart?
What Are Ferns?
Ferns are unique among plant life because they don’t have flowers or seeds in the same way as most plants or trees.
They are still plants, with roots, leaves, and chlorophyll to photosynthesize, however ferns grow slightly differently and use spores to reproduce instead of flowers.
Last Thursday we learned about habitats and why certain wildlife can live in some areas but not others – plants have habitat preferences, too! Ferns especially love to grow in areas with damp or moist soil and dappled sunlight. Ferns contribute to their habitat, also, with some wildlife snacking on their dried stalks when little other food can be found in winter.
For those of you who are curious to learn for detailed information about ferns, check out these resources.
- U.S. Forest Service: What Are Ferns?
- Maine Audubon: Maine’s Naturalist: Finding Ferns
- Naturally Curious with Mary Holland: Wild Turkeys Dine on Sensitive Fern Spores
These terms are helpful when describing parts of a fern – learning these parts will help later once you’re working on identifying a specific type of fern. Some of these are tricky, but even just practicing with them is a great start!
Fronds – fern leaves, made up of leafy blades attached to a stem, some are simple and others are more divided
Petiole – leaf stalk/stem of the fern
Apex – tip of the frond
Pinnae – the leafy sections that make up the blade, pinna = singular leaflet
Pinnules – the even smaller leafy sections that make up a pinna! Some ferns have many divisions made up of many pinnules
Spores – reproductive structures (similar to seeds, but a different process of development) found in various places on a fern that allows them to reproduce
Fiddlehead – new baby ferns, uncurling from a spiral as they grow
Learning to ID: What to Look for
Move through these questions as you try to identify a fern you come across in nature, in a yard, or even online via pictures. Your nature journal is a great place to record these, to take notes, and to sketch any details you think stand out about your fern!
1. What’s the overall shape or structure of this fern?
- Is it tall or short?
- Are there many clumped together or just one?
- Is it all the same color/texture, or are there several fronds that look different from the others
2. What does the habitat around them look like?
- Where are the ferns growing? Where are they not growing?
- How damp or wet does the ground seem?
- Do you recognize any other plants nearby?
3. What is the shape of the fronds?
- Are they rounded or pointed?
4. What do the pinnae (leaflets) look like?
- Are they simple, or are there many divisions/splits on each?
5. Where are the spores located?
- Are they small dots found on the underside of a green frond, such as on the wood ferns?
- Are they upright and covering their own unique frond in the center, like this Cinnamon Fern?
- Are the spores located on the petiole, or stalk, of some fronds, “interrupting” the leaflets, such as on the Interrupted Fern?
There are at least 12 species of ferns native to Maine, so take a look at this Maine YardScaping: Native Fern List as a tool to help you identify them. The notes and questions you answered above should help. Don’t forget – you can always try using a paper field guide, too, if you have one!
Next Generation Science Standards
“Crosscutting Concepts” for all Elementary Grades in this module:
- Scale, Proportion, and Quantity
- Systems and System Models
- Structure and Function
K Performance Expectations:
- Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive. K-LS1-1
- Use a model to represent the relationship between the needs of different plants and animals (including humans) and the places they live. K-ESS3-1
1st Grade Performance Expectations:
- Make observations to construct an evidence-based account that young plants and animals are like, but not exactly like, their parents. 1-LS3-1
2nd Grade Performance Expectations:
- Make observations of plants and animals to compare the diversity of life in different habitats. 2-LS4-1
3rd Grade Performance Expectations:
- Construct an argument with evidence that in a particular habitat some organisms can survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all. 3-LS4-3
- Develop models to describe that organisms have unique and diverse life cycles but all have in common birth, growth, reproduction, and death. 3-LS1-1
- Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence that plants and animals have traits inherited from parents and that variation of these traits exists in a group of similar organisms. 3-LS3-1
4th Grade Performance Expectations:
- Construct an argument that plants and animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction. 4-LS1-1
5th Grade Performance Expectations:
- Support an argument that plants get the materials they need for growth chiefly from air and water. 5-LS1-1
- Use models to describe that that energy in animals’ food (used for body repair, growth, motion, and to maintain body warmth) was once energy from the sun. 5-PS3-1
NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Retrieved from http://www.nextgenscience.org/