One of the world’s oldest forms of plant life has been a part of the Ohio landscape for millions of years, predating both dinosaurs and flowering plants. It’s the fern-the humble potted plant that graces modern living rooms and shady corners of gardens. In their own element, ferns can really strut their stuff. Lush and tropical in appearance, ferns can be easily spotted on rock outcroppings and along the forest floor.
Ancient ferns played a significant role in the development of large coal deposits now found in the Buckeye State. Once the dominant vegetation covering prehistoric Ohio, these carbon-based life forms decayed and became part of the process that long ago created coal.
Ferns do not produce a flower, giving them a special place in the world of botany. In fact, it could be said that ferns have a dual personality. Like their flowering counterparts, they have a well-developed vascular system to carry water, minerals and nutrients throughout their roots, fronds and leaves. But that’s where the similarity stops.
A flowering plant will first create a bloom and then produce a seed, which germinates into another adult plant. In a fern’s world, life’s a little more complicated. Flowerless ferns have spores (not seeds) that develop within rust-colored patches located on the undersides of fronds. When mature, these patches release millions of dust-like spores into the atmosphere. Upon landing in a suitable place, such as a moist rock face, a spore sprouts into an intermediate plant known as a gametophyte. It is in this stage that fertilization occurs and from which the adult fern grows.
More than 85 fern species grow wild in Ohio, thriving in moist cool, shady environments. One of the most abundant is the Christmas fern, found in nearly every Ohio county. Its common name harkens back to a time when pioneers used its evergreen leaves to make wreaths and other winter holiday decorations. With bright green fronds that grow to about one-foot in height, the Christmas fern is a welcome sight year round.
Another fern early Ohioans found useful is the cinnamon fern, which gets its name from the bright cinnamon-colored fronds it produces in spring. The plant’s young, uncurling fronds, known as fiddleheads, are a food source for wildlife such as ruffed grouse. Fiddleheads were also favored by Native Americans for food and medicinal cures, as well as bedding. Today, some folks consider fiddleheads a springtime delicacy, which they steam or boil and serve with a dab of butter. (Remember, as with any wild edible, proper care should be given in the harvesting and preparation to ensure safe food consumption.)
While they can be found in every corner of the state, one of the best places to look for ferns is in southern and southeastern Ohio. Noted for its deep, hemlock-rimmed ravines and moisture dripping sandstone cliffs, Hocking County in particular provides the perfect habitat for ferns. Indeed, this region hosts the state’s greatest diversity of ferns, supporting at least 40 different species.
Among those to be admired is the aptly named fancy fern. This showy evergreen grows in a circular clump, featuring graceful two-foot long fronds. Living up to its common name, the fancy fern’s elegant and glossy green foliage grows in abundance, featuring deeply cut, frilly leaves. Ebony spleenwort is another highly visible fern, not only in the southeast, but across all of Ohio. Also considered an evergreen, its cluster of dark green, upright fronds are supported by glossy, reddish-brown stems. It flourishes in rocky, wooded areas and averages 15 inches in height.
Ohio’s cold winters make life practically intolerable for the Appalachian filmy fern. Living on the edge of its range, this plant’s habitat requirements mean it is one fern most of us will never see. Just one small colony - no more than a foot square - grows in almost total darkness under a shady recess of a Hocking County cliff face. Clinging to the roof of its rocky alcove, this tiny, delicate fern has thin, almost translucent fronds with lacy, multi-lobed leaves.
From cliff faces and woodland paths to stream banks and bogs, ferns bring a diversity and texture all their own to Ohio’s landscape. On your next outdoor adventure, keep your eyes peeled for ferns and see how many species you can count. But please remember, that like most things living and growing wild in Ohio, ferns should only be observed and not disturbed.
- Laura Jones,
ODNR Office of Communications