I’ve been pretty amped about ferns since I discovered that their young springtime leaves are fiddleheads (see my previous post). One important lesson that I learned from my fern research is that it’s important to be able to identify different species of ferns. That way, if you ever want/need to go foraging for fiddleheads in the deep woods, you can choose a type of fiddlehead that is safe to eat.*
*Quick note: From the reading I’ve done, the lady fern seems to be the species in my region most cited as edible, and the bracken fern is the one most cautioned against, as it has been linked with instances of stomach cancer. However, as my knowledge of nature is quite newly acquired (not to mention that I've never actually eaten a fiddlehead) don't take my word for it! If you want to get into foraging, it’s probably best to chat with someone who is knowledgable about wild edibles. Check the resources page (coming soon!) for more info.
Anyway... last Saturday, I gave myself a fern identification assignment at Stanley Park. You can try it out too if you live close to the park, or adjust it to suit your location. Here are the materials I took with me:
- Native Plants of Stanley Park list – click the link to download the PDF from the Stanley Park Ecology Society website
- Plants of Coastal British Columbia (Lone Pine, 2004 ed.), a compact and comprehensive nature guidebook. The Vancouver Public Library has many copies. This book has a good section on ferns on pages 417-427.
- a digital camera to grab some snapshots of the different ferns
- a notebook and pen to make some rough notes about the location and frequency of the ferns
Before I went to the park, I had a look at the Native Plants of Stanley Park list and underlined all the ferns I could find. Then I counted my underlined items and found that there were seven types of ferns listed. Good, I thought – seven is a reasonable scope!
Next, I flipped to the ferns section of Plants of Coastal British Columbia and got acquainted with those seven types of ferns. I made note of the general leaf shape and pattern of each fern. I also tried to see which ferns I could definitely distinguish from the others and which ferns I might confuse. For example, I knew that maidenhair ferns would be easy to identify, as they have long, thin, lacy leaves that look pretty distinct. The bracken fern, lady fern, and spiny wood fern would be harder to identify, as their leaves all looked similar in the photos. Similarly, the deer fern, sword fern, and licorice fern seemed to have a similar type of leaf.
Then came the fun part – a fern scavenger hunt at Stanley Park! I checked out the plants along the seawall first (I walked counterclockwise from the park entrance to Third Beach), and the first ferns that I noticed were sword and bracken ferns.
Sword ferns have leaves that are attached with a little stalk to the central stem. Their leaves make a little upward-facing point right before the stalk, as though they’re giving you a thumbs up (and therefore telling you that you identified it correctly!). At this time of year, the central part of the sword fern contains a combination of curled, brown, hairy shoots and new leaflets that are starting to uncurl, like they’ve just been let out of hair rollers. Many of the plants have a combination of older, dark green growth around the edges and newer, lighter green growth toward the middle. I’ve noticed sword ferns growing everywhere in Stanley Park – they are quite common.
Bracken ferns weren’t as difficult to identify as I first thought. They are different from the other ferns in that they have a single stalk that grows from the ground. There are branches from this stalk that hold the leaves. The lady fern and spiny wood fern have leaves that are similar to the bracken fern, but in these plants, each leaf grows from the ground on its own stalk. So you have a cluster of stalks in the ground (lady and spiny wood) versus a single stalk in the ground (bracken).
A bit further down the Seawall, I came across some lady ferns. Lady fern leaves are diamond-shaped (with a pointed top, leaflets getting wider in the middle, and leaflets getting increasingly shorter toward the base). I also caught sight of a few spiny wood ferns between the Lion’s Gate Bridge and Third Beach. Spiny wood ferns look quite a bit like lady ferns, but their leaves have an overall triangular shape as opposed to a diamond shape. They also have lots of furry brown matter near the bottom of their stalks – they have hairier legs than the ladies, that’s for sure!
Once I got to Third Beach, I walked into the park and onto Merilee’s Trail. It was there that I finally found a deer fern (I had been antsy to see deer fern for awhile at this point, as I was desperate to compare it to a sword fern). The two are actually much different than I expected them to be. The leaflets of the deer fern are attached to a central stalk all along their bases (whereas the sword fern has that little “thumbs up” stalk at the end of its leaflets). Whereas the sword fern leaf is shaped like a tall, slender triangle (gradually widening from the tip to the base), the deer fern leaf widens for awhile and then dips inward toward the base. Also, the deer fern seemed to have a thicker, more leathery texture than the other ferns.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any examples of maidenhair ferns or licorice ferns on this walk – these are the remaining two ferns on the Native Plants of Stanley Park list – but I’ll keep my eyes peeled for them in the future.
Happy fern hunting, everyone… I hope you enjoy the variety of personalities in this plant family as much as I do!