Native Plant Profile: Yours Frondly, Ferns


Native Plant Profile: Yours Frondly, Ferns

Northern Hairy Fern by Sarah Witcher

Who needs flowers when you have fiddleheads? Ferns not only provide feeding space for ground-feeding birds, but they create vital shelter for many species of Maryland wildlife. Let’s explore a bit about why ferns are fascinating and look at some of the benefits of planting them in your home habitat.

First, a bit of history! 390 million years ago, during the Devonian Period, planet Earth was a warm, humid world where ferns had the perfect conditions to become the dominant plant species. By comparison, flowering plants have “only” been around for about 130 million years. Ferns evolved from a now extinct group of plants called Rhyniopsids. Rhyniopsida plants had no leaves; instead, they photosynthesized with their stems and branches. As plants evolved, Rhynopsida gave way to ferns, meaning they were among the first leafy plants.

This raises an interesting question: if the ferns we see in modern times have been around for almost 400 million years, why is almost nothing eating them? One possible explanation is that animals used to eat certain ferns, and that may be why these tastier ferns are no longer around today. Modern ferns can be poisonous; studies have shown that some ferns contain toxins like the cancer-causing ptaquiloside, while others produce another toxic enzyme, thiaminase. These toxins likely make ferns less palatable for nibbling than most surrounding forest foliage, although they are not lethal to wildlife in small amounts. If you’re a gardener, you know that means beautiful, long-lasting, unchewed foliage for a long growing season, with some ferns even having evergreen status.

Some deer resistant native ferns we encourage planting are below. Consider including the elegant fronds of ferns in your garden habitat!

  • Northern Hairy Fern (Adiantum pedatum)
  • Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)
  • Hay Scented Fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula)
  • Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina)
  • royal fern (Osmunda regalis)
  • Wood Fern (Dryopteris marginalis)
Cinnamon fern photo by Edwin Guevara

Cinnamon Fern by Edwin Guevara

Curious to know more about ferns? The Maryland Native Plant Society has even more suggested reading and resources, here. Also, check out this great resource from the US Forest Service, including fern structure and breeding details, places to see them (in addition Natural Areas of Maryland) and coloring for children.

Welcome to HabiChat!

My name is Sarah Witcher and I’m new here! With the help of Edwin Guevara and Paula Becker, I will take over in HabiChat and wild acres kingdom, in hopes of continuing to inspire (and be inspired by) nature enthusiasts across Maryland. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions or wildlife topics you would like to learn more about, or share what you have been up to over the past year with your garden habitat. We would love to hear from you!

In this issue, we’ll look at how to approach the “little” creatures and appreciate the wildlife of mini Maryland through the use of a macro lens. Plus, habitat tips on late summer birdbaths and our favorite ferns will be featured, along with a fun leaf-printing activity for artists of all ages. Finally, enjoy a new section that will highlight the best of what we do here at the Natural Heritage Program within the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

We hope you will come visit us and meet our new staff at the Maryland State Fair.


Sarah Witcher
[email protected]

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Header image with bumblebee


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