The Beginner’s Guide to Studying Ferns

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It might seem strange to be talking about ferns so close to the end of December.

But, Christmas ferns.

They stay green all winter.

Perfect for winter nature study.

Right before and after Christmas!

Have you ever endeavored to learn more about ferns?

They are ancient plants.

Non-flowering plants.

And, you can master most native species in one summer.

First watercolor journal entry. You know what they say, practice makes perfect. Or, at least better.

Places to Find Ferns

young woman wearing a hat leaning over and pointing to a maiden hair fern
Maidenhair ferns are a favorite of ours. Here our daughter, Rebecca points out a maidenhair along our woods walk.

Ferns are generally pretty accessible, but there are some which are harder to find. In one summer, you can easily identify a large portion of native ferns.

Look for ferns in the following places:

  • shady places
  • forest floor- they are often ground cover
  • near trees- at their base

Identifying Characteristics of Ferns

labeled fern
As seen in:

The spore-bearing stalks one called “sporangia”. Many would no doubt argue that “sporangia” is hardly a word worth memorizing, yet one never knows when ferns will make a comeback. The forward thinking among you would do well to jot it down. – Penelope Lumley, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place

Ferns are low lying vascular plants with a primitive root system close to the surface. They grow in moist areas where they can easily get water.

How about some fern vocabulary?

  • Rhizome– horizontal root system from which the fronds rise
  • Frond– the whole leafy structure easily recognized as a fern
  • Stalk– the center stem of the frond
  • Blade– the section of a frond where the leaves are
  • Pinna– one leaf section
  • Axis– point on the stalk where the pinna arise
  • Spores– reproductive diploid generation of a fern

Ferns can be taller than mosses, for example, because they can transport water and nutrients.

Using a Dichotomous Key to Identify a Fern

One of our favorite kinds of field guides is a dichotomous key. Maybe you remember them from biology class.

Dichotomous keys allow you to look at characteristics of the specimen and by process of elimination, narrow things down until you can identify the item.

We have dichotomous keys for many plants and invertebrate species.

It’s like a choose your own adventure!

In this video, I use the Fern Finder to identify the fern in my “well kept” garden.

I am a rockstar right up until the end, when Rebecca informs me with a loud whisper that I’m saying the wrong thing.

I was going to clean that up and edit it out, but then I thought you might like proof that it’s easy to mess up.

And easy to get back on track.

Book Resources for Studying Ferns

We have some standard favorites that we go to for most nature references- some of them are a fern specific member of a particular field guide publisher.

  • Fern Finder– as detailed in the video, this is a small dichotomous key with drawings that help you decide which fern you are looking at. A book like this is most useful with the specimen in front of you.
  • How to Know the Ferns– a wonderful little book which has a lot of insight on spending time outdoors and learning taxonomy of ferns with helpful information on how to identify them and draw them.
  • Peterson Field Guide to the Ferns– designed so you don’t have to flip pages in the field, this guide has a picture/drawing on one page and the description including features on the other.
  • Nature Anatomy– this book is for younger kids and those who are new to nature study. There is something pleasing about the drawings and the simple explanations and there is a chapter on ferns.

More on Vascular Plants & Growing Ferns

These video resources are a fascinating tie in for older students or those who want to know more about the form and function of ferns at a cellular level.

  • Vascular Plants– a Crash Course video on vascular plants and how they differ from non-vascular plants.
  • Ferns & Their Life Cycle– a full demonstration of the fern life cycle at a high biology level
  • Growing Ferns from Spores– from the Fern Factory. You can even buy the kit. But I have to tell you the most mesmerizing thing about this video was the size of some of the fern species he shows!

Other Nature Posts & Beginner Guides

As Charlotte Mason once said,

Never be within doors when you can rightly be without.

In the winter, it’s good to have a goal.

A reason to be out in the cold.

Hunt for ferns.

It’s pleasant to find something green

in the midst of winter.











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