Bracken fern

Pteridium aquilinum
Family: Dennstaedtiaceae

Natural History
Frond of bracken fern
Photo credit: Larry Korhnak, University of Florida

Bracken fern is a perennial fern occurring globally in dry to wet forests, meadows, clearings, sandy soils, roadsides, lake-shores, bogs, and burned areas. The underground stems or rhizomes are deep, giving it the ability to survive intense fires.

There is only one species that grows in the southeast, but different varieties occur outside this area.

Southern bracken is found in most of the eastern United States between Florida and Oklahoma in the south, to Missouri, Illinois, and Massachusetts in the north. Eastern bracken is found between Oklahoma and North Carolina in the south, to Minnesota, Quebec, and Newfoundland in the north.

Several groups of people have used the bracken fern as a food source. Some have boiled and eaten the fiddleheads and virtually all Native Americans used the rhizomes as food. They roasted the dried rhizomes in an open fire, broke the rhizomes into pieces and ate them or steamed the rhizomes in pits or made a type of bread with them. The bracken fern also provides minor amounts of cover for wildlife.

Bracken fern leaves are known to be poisonous to livestock when eaten in large amounts. The toxic ingredient is an enzyme that destroys the animals' thiamin reserves.

Bracken fern has multiple branching stems and triangular-shaped fronds with many leaflet-like segments. This fern does not grow in clusters as many ferns do. It produces tiny brown spore clusters July through September.


Identifying Characteristics

Habitat: Bracken fern is found in acid soils in both older forests and in new pine forests, especially those frequently burned. It is also found in abandoned pastures and along forest margins.
Size/Form: Bracken fern has stiff, upright, branching fronds that grow from creeping and forking underground rhizomes. It grows up to 4½' tall and has triangular-shaped fronds.
Stem: The stiff stem has alternate branches from the rhizome. It is often branched into three fronds. The base is dark brown and slightly hairy, becoming straw colored and hairless toward the tip.
Fronds: Bracken fern fronds branch once or twice, giving the appearance of compound leaves. The deciduous fronds have many spatula-shaped leaflet-like segments with the margins rolled under. The leaves are 8" to 23" long and 8" to 23" wide. The leaflet-like segments are 1/2" to 3" long and 1/8" to 1/4" wide, becoming shorter toward the end of the frond stems. There is a longer terminal segment that may be slightly hairy underneath.
Reproduction: Ferns reproduce by spores and bracken fern's spores form as clusters along the margins on the underside of leaflets. The spores are dispersed by wind usually after a fire or disturbance.



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