Story and Photos by Joan Herrmann

Photo by Joan Herrmann

Whereiwander… here in the Northeast we are blessed to find them in gardens, woodlands, wetlands, and roadsides. We are fortunate to also have thousands of wildflowers, hundreds of different species throughout the spring, summer and fall. To assist with identifying diverse species of wildflowers we have a multitude of field guides and nature books; and now there are also numerous field guides and nature books to assist with identification of our numerous, several hundred, native ferns. Scientists have found fossils of ferns that are more than two hundred million years old. Interrupted Fern (Osmunda claytoniana), which can be easily found in our area, has been found in fossils in Antarctica; and they look exactly like the ones you may encounter while hiking along most of our woodland trails.

Ferns are vascular plants that reproduce by means of spores. They do not have flowers or seeds. Vascular plants have tissue that conducts water and minerals throughout the plant. Unlike wildflowers that reproduce numerous seeds the ferns produce thousands of spores that will scatter in the wind or by animals brushing past them. The spore will hopefully be carried to a suitable spot where under the right conditions it will begin its life as a gametophyte (a small plant reproduced from spores). After many cycles, it will eventually become a tiny fern and continue its growth. The spore is enclosed in a case known as a sori (plural sorus). The sorus is sometimes useful in aiding the correct identification of a particular species.

Photo by Joan Herrmann

In early spring the fiddleheads, young coiled fern frond, will begin pushing its way through the soil and unfurl. The fiddlehead, also known as a crozier, lies dormant throughout the winter and after the snow has melted they quickly emerge. The name fiddlehead comes from their shape which is thought to resemble the scroll on the end of stringed instruments such as a fiddle or violin. The name crozier refers to the staff which is used by a Bishop or Shepherd. The springtime fiddleheads may be found in a number of colors. The Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) pushes forth as a brilliant green color, while the Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is a dull grayish-green and burgundy is the choice color of Northern Maidenhair (Adiantum pedatum) Northern Lady Fern (Athyrium filix- femina) and one of our earliest the Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis). Some fiddleheads are smooth with a brittle papery covering while others are fuzzy in appearance. Ostrich fern fiddleheads are recognized as an early spring vegetable, tasting a lot like asparagus or broccoli, but beware as not all fiddleheads are edible. The Christmas Fern and Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea) which look delightful are NOT edible. If you are anxious to try a fiddlehead as a vegetable I suggest that you buy them, in the spring, from a grocery store.

Photo by Joan Herrmann

In the spring as the fiddlehead pushes through the ground it continues its growth and unfurls to become the Frond (blade), or leafy part, of the fern. Another part of the fern is the stripe (petiole), which is the leaf stalk from the frond down to the rhizome (the woody part of rootstock). The Frond (blade) in some ferns contains a midrib (rachis) as in compound fronds which bear the pinna. The pinna contains the pinnules. See the marked Photograph for a better understanding. In some fern species, the fertile sori can be found the pinnules. Some of the Osmunda ferns the fronds are sterile and fertile sori are found on stalks which are surrounded by fronds or within the middle of the leafy fronds, which also gives Interrupted Fern its common name.

One of my favorite ferns grows in our woodland gardens, but it may also be found along hiking trails in addition to our rock wall alpine garden. Its common name is Maidenhair Fern and it will grow and thrive in shady or sunny conditions as well as liking its “feet wet”. I have found it numerous times near streams and waterfalls. Its graceful shape reminds me of a child’s pinwheel toy. Adiantum its genera means “not wetting” from the Greek word and refers to the ability of the fond to shed water without actually becoming wet. The fern’s stripe is usually black while the rachis is black or green. It reaches heights of twelve to thirty inches tall. Maidenhair fern was once thought to cure baldness. It is not an evergreen like the Christmas fern and it will die down after the first hard frost.

Photo by Joan Herrmann

Rock Polypody (Polypodium virginianum) also known as rock cap fern may be found growing on glacial erratics (enormous boulders) found throughout the Adirondacks. Rock Polypody is an evergreen fern and may be seen all year round. Their large circular sorus is found on the undersides of the fronds. Polypody is able to survive extreme drought conditions. Its leaves roll up when lacking moisture, unrolling when it is available. Its fronds are eaten by deer, grouse, and turkeys.

Three Osmunda ferns that may be found in our area include Interrupted, Cinnamon, and Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis). Interrupted Fern was named by English born botanist John Clayton, who lived in Virginia; he named it Interrupted Fern for the large gap in the middle of each blade where the fertile portions are located. This fern may grow from sixteen inches to forty inches tall. Cinnamon fern is unusual in that it has both sterile fronds, and fertile spore-bearing fronds, which when mature become a lovely cinnamon color. The fertile fronds stand erect, within the middle of the sterile green fronds. The sterile fronds will die after the first hard frost, but the fertile fronds will remain until the following season. Cinnamon ferns form huge root masses. Native Americans used cinnamon fern as a cold remedy and also as a remedy for snake bites. Royal fern also has both fertile and sterile fronds and prefers wetter environments. Look for all three of these beautiful ferns in bogs and wetlands.

Wishing you some interesting hiking adventures and perhaps I will see you, whereiwander…

As a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist, and Outdoor Educator, Joan Herrmann has been teaching and doing programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers, about 38 years. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995 she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature, and also became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute, in Utica, New York she has been educating children and adults, for nineteen years.

In 2007 she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP) and in 2013 and 2014 did a week-long summer program at BROEP in conjunction with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). Using her love of both nature and photography she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.

Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in the cataloging of all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.

Since October 2016 she has been writing a bimonthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October of 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with My Little Falls Newspaper. You may reach her at