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Ferns are primitive, non-flowering plants that mainly reproduce by spores. They belong to the Pteridophyta group of plants. This group also includes horsetails, clubmosses, spikemosses and quillworts.
Ferns are among the earliest vascular plants. They evolved over 300 million years ago and dominated the Carboniferous Period. During this time they grew to huge tree-like sizes. Their deaths and later compaction helped create the coal we use as fuel today.
Most ferns have large, divided leaves called fronds. These are responsible for photosynthesis and reproduction. They do not have seeds or fruits, but they reproduce via spores that usually gather on the underside of the fronds.
Many fern species are shade tolerant and prosper in woods as they can grow all year round under the tree canopies.
The large male-fern, Dryopteris filix-mas, is a common UK woodland species that grows in clumps. Hart’s tongue fern, Asplenium scolopendrium, is an attractive evergreen fern. It can grow in large drifts among rocks and beneath trees.
The Killarney fern, Vandenboschia speciosa, is one the the most beautiful but rare species. Its delicate fronds make it extremely sought after by horticulturalists. Its numbers were decimated by Victorian collectors. Today much secrecy surrounds its locations.
Bracken, Pteridium aquilinum, is a large fern commonly found in woodland and heathland. It can provide good habitat for ground nesting birds. It can tolerate a wide range of conditions and is found all over the world.
Due to its ability to rapidly colonise areas, bracken can outcompete other plants. This is problem on some sites where it needs to managed. One reason it is important to restore ancient woodland sites gradually is to prevent bracken from dominating.