Quick facts

Common name(s): bracken, brake fern, bracken fern

Scientific name: Pteridium aquilinum

Family: Dennstaedtiaceae

Origin: native

In leaf: spring to autumn

Habitat: woodland, heathland

Bracken is the largest of our native ferns. It’s actually a ‘Pteridophyte’ which means that though it has vascular tissue like other plants, it reproduces by spores rather than seeds.

Leaves/fronds: large, green, with triangular fronds which are divided and alternate down the stem. The fronds are tri-pinnate, which means that the leaflets which grow on each side the stem are themselves divided into leaflets as are those leaflets.

New fronds unfurl from the base in the spring as a trio of small leaves or pinnules. Mature fronds are upright and sturdy and on the upper surface, they are usually leathery and shiny. They can grow up to two metres high and one metre wide. In autumn, the fronds turn reddish-brown, sometimes dying back to ground level, sometimes remaining throughout the winter.

Rachis (stem): hairy, pushes up in spring with a spirally coiled frond at the end which gradually unfurls, layer by layer.

Rhizome: perennial, fleshy, black and hairy underground stem which can be as deep as one metre down and travel over several hundred metres.

Spores: spore cases (sporangia) grow in clusters on the underside of the fronds. Spores are released to be dispersed by the wind.

Not to be confused with: buckler fern (Dryopteris dilatata) which doesn't grow as tall as bracken. Also, bracken has side branches and grows from stems under the ground while buckler ferns have circular crowns.

Bracken in woodland

Credit: Ken Leslie / WTML

Where to find bracken

Bracken is one of the most widely distributed of all vascular plants. It can be found from sea level to more than 3,000 metres if the temperatures allow it, on well-drained soils but never on marshes or boggy ground.
It is a common sight in the British countryside in woodland and heathland across a wide range of soils and climates.

Did you know?

When the young fronds are damaged by a browsing animal, bracken produces hydrogen cyanide which quickly poisons the perpetrator.

Speckled wood butterfly on bracken

Credit: Richard Becker / WTML

Value to wildlife

Bracken provides a good habitat for nesting birds and cover for the movement of other birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles.

Fritillary butterflies live in habitats dominated by bracken and can be seen flying over the tops of the plant from April to mid-August. It is also one of the food plants of caterpillars of moths, such as the garden tiger, brown silver-line, small angle-shades, orange swift, gold swift, map-winged swift.

Mythology and symbolism

Many myths and legends surround bracken. It was said to grant perpetual youth, while the tiny spores gave whoever held them on St John’s Eve the power of invisibility, folklore which is even referred to in Shakespeare’s Henry V.

Witches were said to hate bracken because the Greek letter X – a symbol of Christ – was revealed when the stem was cut. In Ireland, it was known as the fern of God because it was said that when the stem is cut at three points, each point displays a letter which together spells GOD. In Scotland, it is said that the plant is an impression of the Devil’s foot; while in Venezuela and Brazil, it is used in magic rituals for cleansing the soul.

Did you know?

Fossil records indicate that bracken is a very ancient plant dating back 55 million years and even 24 million years ago already had a worldwide distribution.

Uses of bracken

The young fronds are cooked as vegetables or in soups in Japan and other parts of Asia. They were once sold in bundles in a similar way to asparagus. The rhizomes have even been used to make bread flour. We wouldn’t recommend eating bracken though as even cooking doesn’t remove all the hydrogen cyanide from the leaves. It also contains carcinogens linked with oesophageal and stomach cancers.

Traditionally, people walked through smoking bracken to alleviate the symptoms of sciatica and other aches in the legs. The leaves were also eaten to purge the stomach and relieve problems in the spleen and intestines, including broad worms.

Burnt bracken ash can be used to make glass, soap and as a plant fertiliser and weed control.

Threats and conservation

Due to its ability to rapidly colonise areas, bracken can outcompete other plants. This is a problem in some of our woods where bracken needs to be actively managed. This is one of the reasons why it is important to restore ancient woodland sites gradually so bracken is prevented from dominating.