Bracken fern produces fronds from a single stem growing from along a long rhizome.
Bracken fern is deciduous with its fronds changing to shades of gold and rust before the plant dies back in winter. Click to download a large version (800x600) of this image).
Bracken fern, or just bracken, is a perennial fern that is deciduous in all but tropical climates. In springtime bracken fern sends up robust fronds on arching stems arising from long, branching, hairy rhizomes that creep below the ground surface. Unlike many other ferns that grow in clusters, bracken fronds arise singly from along the rhizome. The fronds are 1-3 ft (30-100 cm) long (sometimes considerably larger), more or less triangular in outline, and divided two, three or even four times, with the ultimate segments each about a half inch (1.25 cm) long. Bracken does not produce specialized reproductive fronds. Instead, the spores are contained in linear patches along the margins of the ultimate segments. Several geographical varieties have been named and some authors believe bracken fern, as currently understood, is actually made up of several species. There also are a few cultivars in the trade, selected for various weirdness attributes of the fronds.
Bracken fern, like some other ferns, has a cosmopolitan distribution. This is so because the spores of ferns are so tiny they are readily carried on the wind. Bracken is one of the most widespread ferns in the world, occuring in the Northern Hemisphere in Asia, Europe, and North America, and in Australia, New Zealand and South America in the Southern Hemisphere. Bracken occurs in a variety of habitats including swamps, piney woods and hardwood forests. It is especially common in sandy, fire-prone habitats, and becomes a dominant ground cover in pine woods that have been burned (unnaturally) in the winter, rather than during the summer lightning season as was the natural situation before modern man began "prescribed" burning. Bracken fern is sometimes a pest in cattle pastures.
Culture Light: Bracken can grow in full sun to nearly full shade. It is at its best, however, in partial shade, as under tall pine trees. Moisture: Bracken fern grows naturally in dry, sandy, acidic soils, and its deeply buried rhizomes insure that it is fire resistant and quite drought tolerant. Hardiness: USDA Zones 3-11. Propagation: Increase bracken fern (if you find it necessary!) by breaking off pieces of the rhizome. Propagation from the spores is not difficult. Bracken fern, from undetected spores, is sometimes an unwanted weed in sphagnum and commercial potting soils.
A colony of bracken fern covers the ground in a North Florida piney wood forest.
Use bracken fern as a ground cover in dry, sandy soils. It's especially useful where you have a dry, partly shady area under large oaks: that is, a place where lawn grass barely survives. Bracken is a rather coarse fern, not a prissy little shrinking violet of a fern, but one that will spread across the ground and call attention to itself. Be advised that it will probably spread too much and become weedy, unless you keep it in bounds. I mow mine down when it gets out of the little fernery that it shares with other Florida natives including cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea) and royal fern (O. regalis), (neither of which, by the way, is at all inclined to sneak out into the lawn). Other gardeners confine bracken fern to a sunken container within the bed so it can't go exploring. The leathery fronds make attractive backdrops in flower arrangements.
Various parts of bracken fern have been used for a variety of medicinal (internal and external) purposes by various peoples throughout the world. It probably has no actual therapeutic value, however, and in fact, bracken fern is now believed to be a poisonous carcinogen when consumed. Nevertheless, many people in Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the Pacific still eat parts of bracken fern.
The foliage of bracken fern is poisonous to livestock. Although it is still eaten by people in several cultures around the world, the fiddleheads and rhizomes of bracken fern are now believed to be carcinogenic when consumed. It has been postulated that the high incidence of stomach cancers found in some Japanese societies derives from their consumption of bracken fern rhizomes and fiddleheads.