Central Coast Ferns - Part 3: Part Shade to Shade (larger ferns)

Like the picture above, my knowledge of ferns has some pretty dark areas, and a lot of mystery spots. I need more experience. At the frond level, I have a hard time telling any generally ferny shaped thing from any other (Lady fern, coastal wood fern, bracken fern, etc) .

For example, at a park just up the coast, Wilder Ranch state park, there is a coastal bluff walk that is very enjoyable, and three miles from the parking lot or maybe less is Fern Grotto Beach. Here are the ferns growing down from the roof the "grotto" - a shallow cave. In summer, house finches nest here and its great fun to watch them.

But what are they? Coastal wood fern maybe?

When learning to ID something it's good to get hold of a few handles so you can recognize the parts. For ferns we use different botanical terminology than for flowering plants.
  • The stem-like thing we see arising from the ground is not the real stem (which apparently does not grow above ground). It is a stipe.
  • The bits that stick out from the stipe are the pinnae (latin for feathers).
  • In bipinnately compound fronds, the leaflet things that stick out from the pinnae are pinnules.
I've been puzzling to ID the fronds of some of our common ferns and - as we say in Scotland - getting my knickers in a twist. I have noticed this:
  • Giant chain fern pinnules are long and floppy
  • Bracken fern pinnules are more leathery and not dentate or cut
  • Lady fern pinnules are dentate or cut (not sure of the term). Also its pinnules are longer than those of coastal wood fern.
  • Coastal wood fern pinnules are also kinda cut, but they are shorter.
Clearly I'm no expert, but I find that half an hour of painful confusion is worth it if you can get observation in the field shortly thereafter, to resolve the lacunae of knowledge thus brought to awareness. And luckily today I was able to get down the road to the shady stillness of a vale, between rain showers. But let me interrupt this blog post for...

Advice from an Expert
Before getting into the fern pictures I'd like to share some info from someone who is an expert, Pete Veilleux of East Bay Wilds nursery. He gave this advice on the Gardening with Natives forum recently and gave me permission to share it here. [Note: I normalized the punctuation - Pete, like my older daughter, doesn't seem to like capital letters. BTW I added the bold type on one tip that you'll want to be sure to catch.]
Giant chain and deerfern grow where there is water all year long. Chain fern can grow in a tiny, soggy spot in the middle of the desert - as long as it stays soggy. Deer fern like the duff that they live in to remain evenly moist all year - which is pretty difficult considering duff dries out before soil does. Sword ferns grow normally in very deep duff - sometimes in soil which stays a tiny bit moist year round, but they definitely do best w/ higher humidity. The drier it gets where you are, the deeper the shade they need to be in. Thrips is their bane and it takes a loooong time for them to recover from them. Chain fern is the easiest, because it just needs a little mudhole to stay happy. So my advice is site them in total shade - not dark shade, just total shade. Mulch them very heavily and keep the mulch topped off - the more composted the mulch the better. And keep them all watered regularly w/out ever forgetting to water them. Timers are really good for that. otoh, ferns do real well in containers IF you are reliable about watering them. They can get huge and gorgeous in no time [well, in under a year anyways].

I grow the following California native ferns and find them all pretty easy: lady fern, bladder fern, bracken fern, coville's lipfern, wooly lipfern, giant chain fern, california sword fern, coastal wood fern, goldback fern, california lace fern, 5-finger fern, southern maidenhair fern, jordan's maidenhair fern, coffee fern, bird's foot fern, imbricate sword fern, and dudley's sword fern. On top of those, I grow another 6 or 7 non-native ferns. One secret I've learned which works for most ferns [although not all of them], is even if they are always found in acidic environments, they will thrive if given a dusting of lime twice per year. It really promotes growth and vigor in so many of them. The only one I know which doesn't benefit from this is adiantum aleuticum or the 5 finger fern. They get vigorous, but not in a good way. They get kind of crinkly and stunted rather than graceful and soft.
OK, on with the show...

Polystichum munitum, Western Sword Fern
Sword fern and deer fern are similar. I don't see deer fern around here, but deer fern don't have the "hilt" at the end close to the stipe. Western Sword Fern rises tall and narrow in shady moist places or tumbles down from a slope. It is dark, dark green - and it is evergreen, whereas many of the ferns are deciduous. I refer you to Curbstone Farm's blog post for a lovely detailed description of this fern.

In the picture above there are three ferns at least, I think. Is it bracken fern on the left and lady fern on the right? Or Coastal wood fern? I just can't figure it out at this point. The above photo was taken, I think, in Henry Cowell park. And here is the "hilt" part that gives them their common name:

Woodwardia fimbriata, Western Chain Fern
These large ferns, their fronds up to six feet long, spring up and out from the center in a lovely display. They grow nearby, but lower than our property, along the streams. Here's some pictures I took today.

The above is about 12-15 feet across! Here is one frond:

Easily 6 feet long. You can see a five fingered fern below on the right, for a sense of scale. And below are the pinnae and pinnules close up. You can see they are distinctively long.

This photo from last spring is of a youngish western chain fern that is happily growing in Town Mouse's garden.

Blechnum spicant, Deer Fern
Deer Fern is a bit similar to Polystichum munitum but it doesn't have the sticky-out bit (the "hilt" of the sword) at the bottom of the pinnae. There are also different types of fronds, sterile (shown below) and fertile - taller and narrower.

Here's a photo by Pete Veilleux of East Bay Wilds. His Flickr site is a treasure trove of beautiful photos of native plants and animals. He has a whole set on native California ferns.

Athyrium filix-femina, Lady Fern
This fern has such a classic fern shape, I just have a hard time identifying it. I don't know if I've ever really seen it. Here it is, in another of Pete's pictures:

This fern has been well used by humans over time. The quote below is taken from a page on World Biomes:
Grizzly bears like to eat Lady ferns as a major food source. Elk will also eat it also. Native Americans had many uses for Lady ferns. They used lady ferns for drying berries on, and covering food. The young shoots, or fiddleheads, were cooked, baked or eaten raw. Tea was made from the leaves to help urination and to stop breast pain caused by childbirth. The tea was also used to ease labour pains. Roots were dried and ground into a dust to help heal wounds. Oil from the roots of Lady ferns has been used since the 1st century AD to get rid of worms. An overdose could cause weakness, coma, and often blindness.
And here is a clever thing Pete does that I just love - he takes photos of different things and then mirrors them to create interesting symmetries.

I saw a lot of interesting things growing down the road by the stream - including this blossoming thing growing in the wet at the foot of the hill. The picture isn't very good but if you know what this is, please let me know!

I now have 9 or 10 "mystery plants" to ID! I'll share with you anything interesting I find out another time.


Thanks for the link to our Western Sword Fern post! I'm with you, some of my fern identification needs work. We have something here that strongly resembles Lady Fern, but I need to take some macro shots of the fronds to make a conclusive ID. I was out scrabbling around our hillsides between down-pours today, and did notice that a lot of the Western Sword ferns are about to explode with new growth. Next time I'm out at Wilder, I'll have to stop by that Fern Grotto, I'm intrigued!
Country Mouse said…
Hi, CV - ya it's a nice spot there. Used to be a whale skeleton right in that "grotto" - made for a very poetic (and smelly) scene. Right outside are lots of martins' mud nests on the cliff wall, and in late spring it's great fun to watch them swooping in to feed their babies.
Town Mouse said…
Very inspiring. Maybe I'm willing to give ferns another try. Sounds like going there with a spray bottle every once in a while might really make a difference. And I'll see about lime...
I'm not sure, but might your mystery plant be Western Coltsfoot (Petasites frigidus)?

Christine B. said…
What? Knickers in a twist came from Scotland? It's a well known saying here in Alaska. Second only to "Is that a moose eating your lilac?"

Christine B.
Country Mouse said…
Yes, CF - looks like coltsfoot indeed! I'm posting to GWN forum along with the rest to see what those good folk have to say.

I don't really know where "get your knickers in a twist" saying comes from I guess - but we used to call our undies knickers routinely and I don't think they did that in England. Then again, maybe that was just my family. My mother was fairly inventive with language and some things I thought were Scottish were just - Mum! (I totally don't get the lilac-eating-mouse saying though!)
Troy said…
I grew up with "Knickers in a Knot" which was mostly used when talking to British tourists. They always seemed to be whinging about something. "The flies are in my food", "The poor manners of Australians (Well hello! Were Convicts!) and "my beer is cold!". Crazy Poms.

What a great series on ferns. Some I've never heard of before but look like worthy garden additions. Nice job CM.
Christine said…
I love these posts with all the verbage, I feel like I should be taking notes! It's timely, too since I'll be doing one planting of Polystichums and another with Woodwardia in the near future.
Kate said…
I love ferns -- spend hours and hours shooting pics of them when visiting Oregon. It's too dry for them to do well here so it's always very special to hike along a ferny trail. Beautiful photos!
Noelle said…
I do so love ferns and remember having some at my childhood home in Southern California. Alas, we do not have any in the desert although I do remember studying them in depth in my Plant Biology class in college. Great information about some beautiful plants.
Nature ID said…
Shoot! I was hoping to be the first to ID your mystery "blossoming thing growing in the wet at the foot of the hill." This afternoon I was at the library looking at wildflower books and remembered your picture. E.L. Horn's Coastal Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest has a nice description of Petasites frigidus. Apparently, it's also found in northern Europe and Asia. We plan to hike at Wilder Ranch on Sunday and I hope to find Fern Grotto.
Anonymous said…
A shallow cave. In summer, house finches nest here and its great fun to watch them.