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Fern Identification 101

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.*

A ladybug on a lady fern!

A ladybug on a lady fern!

*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.

Here's a card I made to learn the shapes of the different fern leaves. The images are photocopied from  Plants of Coastal British Columbia .

Here's a card I made to learn the shapes of the different fern leaves. The images are photocopied from Plants of Coastal British Columbia.

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.

Left: a sword fern hanging out in the forest. Right: some hairy sword fern fiddleheads and curly leaflets unrolling in the sunshine.

Left: a sword fern hanging out in the forest. Right: some hairy sword fern fiddleheads and curly leaflets unrolling in the sunshine.

A close up of a sword fern leaf. Look in the circle... can you see the little stalk and upward point at the inner end of the leaflet?

A close up of a sword fern leaf. Look in the circle... can you see the little stalk and upward point at the inner end of the leaflet?

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).

LEFT: The bracken fern grows from a single stalk (see white arrow). RIGHT: Behold the beauty of the bracken fiddlehead - but DON'T eat it!

LEFT: The bracken fern grows from a single stalk (see white arrow). RIGHT: Behold the beauty of the bracken fiddlehead - but DON'T eat it!

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!

The  lady fern  on the left has a leaf that expands near the centre, then tapers toward the bottom. The  spiny wood fern  on the right has a more triangular shape

The lady fern on the left has a leaf that expands near the centre, then tapers toward the bottom. The spiny wood fern on the right has a more triangular shape

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.

The  deer fern  on the left has a more leathery feel than the leafy  sword fern  on the right.

The deer fern on the left has a more leathery feel than the leafy sword fern on the right.

A deer fern. Notice that the unfurling spiny leaves in the middle look different from the other leaves - I found out during a guided nature walk that these spiny leaves are the part of the deer fern that is responsible for reproduction. The leaves look like waxed moustaches on a stalk!

A deer fern. Notice that the unfurling spiny leaves in the middle look different from the other leaves - I found out during a guided nature walk that these spiny leaves are the part of the deer fern that is responsible for reproduction. The leaves look like waxed moustaches on a stalk!

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!

Fiddleheads!

Ferns have helped me to tune into the forest. When I first started to visit Stanley Park more regularly, I began to jot down my sightings in a journal. My first entry, from October 2012, has a sketch of some horsetail and a shrub, an observation about the size of the autumn maple leaves, and a fern mention: “I also noticed the ferns, possibly because they are closest to the ground. They are so fluffy and perky, like mohawks or pompoms ready to make mischief."

Sword ferns - the punk rockers of the Vancouver forest.

Sword ferns - the punk rockers of the Vancouver forest.

Ferns were also one of the first things on my radar in the springtime: “ferns that grow like fiddleheads” was under my list of sightings from early April. What I saw were tiny fern plants emerging from the forest floor. They had two inner stems growing from them, but these stems did not look like ferns! They each had a tip that was tightly coiled into itself, and appeared from a distance to be solid and juicy, like a curly piece of asparagus. I had seen something like this at the grocery store in years previous – fiddleheads, they were called, and were touted to be quite delicious. Wait, I thought to myself. Is a fiddlehead… a fern? When people eat fiddleheads, are they eating ferns?

 

Fiddleheads in the forest, showing off their cute gremlin heads.

Fiddleheads in the forest, showing off their cute gremlin heads.

A week later, I asked my fiddlehead/fern question to a nature-loving acquaintance. She confirmed that yes, fiddleheads are indeed newly-growing fern leaves. I, thrilled by this information, asked my acquaintance if she had ever gathered fiddleheads from Stanley Park for a locally-sourced springtime meal. She said she hadn’t, for two reasons: one, because the Vancouver Park Board does not allow anyone to take anything from the park, and secondly, because she wasn’t sure if she could identify which fern species were edible and which were toxic to humans. Good point!

I had a look at the Spring 2013 issue of Edible Vancouver, my local foodie magazine, and was lucky to find Alexander McNaughton’s article, “Chefs in the Wild” (p. 35-38) – a great write-up on foraging fiddleheads. In addition to giving good advice on how to forage responsibly (i.e. standing on stones and logs to avoid impacting the ground and only taking one or two fiddleheads from each fern so as not to excessively delay its growth), he also offers up some info on which fiddleheads you can eat and which to avoid. From what I’ve read, the consensus seems to be that the bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) is to be avoided, as it has been linked with instances of stomach cancer, and the lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) is the reliably edible one to be looking for if you go foraging in coastal BC (but please do more thorough research and speak to somebody in the know if you wish to begin harvesting wild edibles). McNaughton suggests seeking out Athyrium alpestre, a.k.a. the alpine lady fern, which lives at higher elevations.

These resources have helped me with my fern research!

These resources have helped me with my fern research!

To broaden my knowledge of ferns, I also took a flip through A Natural History of Ferns (2004) by Robbin C. Moran. This book was quite dense with scientific information, and a little too advanced for me, but still made a good effort to describe ferns in an engaging way (he begins a discussion of fern spores by relating a scene from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, for example). Moran is a Curator of Botany at the New York Botanical Garden, and also researches ferns in Central America and the Andes, so his focus in this book was quite a bit broader than the bit of coastal British Columbia that I am observing. However, I really enjoyed his chapter on the bracken fern (he breaks down, scientifically, the various ways in which they are poisonous to animals and humans).

I also found Moran’s chapter on fiddleheads to be very interesting. He discusses what causes the curled shape of the fiddlehead – the cells on the inner side of the leaf are initially shorter than those on the outer side. When the growth rate of the inner cells begins to catch up with that of the outer cells, the fern leaf begins to uncurl. Good to know! He also notes the mathematical beauty of the fiddlehead – it is an example of an equiangular spiral, which also occurs in nautilus sea shells, spiral galaxies, and the path of an insect flying toward a light source.

 

Two photos of fiddleheads taken two weeks apart (left: beginning of April and right: mid April). Notice how the fiddlehead on the right is starting to uncurl.

Two photos of fiddleheads taken two weeks apart (left: beginning of April and right: mid April). Notice how the fiddlehead on the right is starting to uncurl.