Ferns of the Adirondacks:
Eastern Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum)
Eastern Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum ssp. latiusculum) is a coarse, deciduous fern with large, triangular fronds, growing about waist high. It thrives in old fields, mixed woods, and sunny trail sides throughout the Adirondack Park, often gaining dominance after logging or fire.
The Eastern Bracken Fern, like the Hay-scented Fern, is a member of the Dennstaedtiaceae Family. Eastern Bracken Fern is part of the Pteridium genus.
- The New York Flora Atlas lists two members of this genus: Eastern Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum ssp. latiusculum) and Southeastern Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum ssp. pseudocaudatum). The latter fern does not occur in the Adirondack region; it is found only on Staten Island and eastern Long Island.
- The genus name (Pteridium) reportedly comes from the Greek pteron (wing); the fronds of ferns are said to suggest the wings of a bird.
- The species name (aquilinum) reportedly is a reference to the appearance of the fiddleheadFiddlehead: The unfurling young frond of true ferns, which loosely resembles the ornate, curled end of a fiddle. (Synonym=crosier), which as it unfolds looks like an eagle's claw. Other sources contend, however, that the name derives from the root of the Bracken or the stem near the base, which (when cut across) is said to resemble an eagle.
Other common names for this fern include: Bracken, Common Bracken, Bracken Fern, Brake Fern, Brackenfern, Northern Bracken Fern, Western Brackenfern, Eastern Brackenfern, and Eagle Fern. The latter name is another reference to the similarity of the fiddlehead to an eagle's claw.
Identification of Eastern Bracken Fern
Eastern Bracken Fern is easy to recognize, because of its large, broadly triangular frondsFrond: The whole leaf of a fern. It includes the blade (the expanded leafy part of the frond) and the stipe (the stalk below the blade).. It usually grows about waist high.
- This fern grows from very long, creeping rhizomesRhizome: The modified subterranean stem of a plant that sends out roots and shoots from its nodes. Rhizomes are also called creeping rootstalks and rootstocks., which lie deep within the soil, protected from fire and drought.
- The bladesBlade: The expanded, leafy part of the frond. (leaves) of the fronds grow almost horizontally, especially in more shady locations, forming a dense growth.
- The blades are divided into pinnaePinna: A primary division of the blade (plural: pinnae). (leaflets), giving the impression of a three-part leaf. The pinnae are divided into pinnulesPinnule: A division of the pinna. (sub-leaflets), which are oblong with smoothSmooth: Refers to the margin (edge) of a pinna or pinnule which is smooth, lacking teeth. (untoothed) edges.
- In contrast to ferns such as the Sensitive Fern, Interrupted Fern, and Cinnamon Fern (all of which also grow in the Adirondacks), the sterile frondsSterile frond: A frond without sporangia (spore cases). of the Eastern Bracken Fern are quite similar in appearance to the fertile frondsFertile frond: A frond with sporangia (spore cases).. On the fertile fronds, the soriSorus: A cluster of sporangia, usually borne on the underside or margins of the pinnae or pinnules. (plural = sori) (clusters of sporangiaSporangium: Spore cases inside which the spores develop. (plural = sporangia) or spore cases) are located on the edges of the underside of the pinnules (sub-leaflets).
The tripartite fronds of Eastern Bracken Fern are similar to those of the Oak Fern (Gymnocarpium dryopteris (L.) Newman), which also grows in the Adirondack Park. However, Oak Ferns prefer a shadier site than the Eastern Bracken Fern. Moreover, Oak Ferns are much smaller ferns, growing only about eight or nine inches tall.
Uses of Eastern Bracken Fern
There is conflicting evidence on the use of Eastern Bracken Fern as a food. Humans in many parts of the world have used the fiddleheads and rhizomes of the plant as food for centuries. In North America, some Native Americans peeled and steamed the young fiddleheads as a substitute for asparagus or canned them for winter use. The Bella Coola toasted and ate the rhizomes in summer. Other Native American groups roasted the rhizomes and pounded them into flour.
However, most sources stress the possible health risks posed by Bracken.. One authority suggests that the fiddleheads, while still in the uncurled stage, can be eaten raw or cooked in moderate quantities. Other sources caution against food use of the plant at any time, as even the fiddleheads have been found to contain carcinogenic substances.
Bracken was used extensively by native Americans as a medicinal plant, to treat a wide variety of ailments including nausea, stomach cramps, rheumatism, and headaches. For example, the Iroquois used a compound of the plant to treat rheumatism; it was also taken during the early stages of consumption. The Cherokee used the root as an antiseptic and tonic.
Bracken has many other human uses. It has been used in the past as thatch and livestock bedding. Until the mid-nineteenth century, Bracken ash was a source of potash for soap, bleach, and glassmaking. The leaves were used to make a brown dye; the rhizomes have been used to tan leather and dye wool. Bracken also has been put to a wide variety of household uses. Dried fronds have been used as a packing material for fruit, a lining for baskets, and a garden mulch. The roots were used by several native American groups in basketry. The fronds were used for bedding while camping, to line earth ovens, and as layers to dry food.
Wildlife Value of Eastern Bracken Fern
Bracken has some uses as a wildlife food. Although grazing mammals usually avoid it unless other food sources are scarce, White-tailed Deer have been known to graze occasionally on the foliage, mostly in spring, on the fiddleheads. Rabbits occasionally eat the fronds and rhizomes. The fern also hosts a variety of insect species. Insects which feed on Bracken include the caterpillars of several moths, including the Bracken Borer Moth, and the larvae of several species of sawflys and aphids.
Because of its height and density, Eastern Bracken Fern provides cover for deer, other mammals, and birds. Fronds of the Eastern Bracken Fern are used for nesting material or as a nest site by several birds which breed in the Adirondacks, including Palm Warblers, Indigo Buntings, White-throated Sparrows, and Golden-crowned Kinglets.
Distribution of Eastern Bracken Fern
Eastern Bracken Fern is said to be the most common of all the North American ferns. It is widespread throughout the northeast United States and the southern part of Canada.
In New York State, this fern has been documented in all counties, except Yates County in the western part of the state. Eastern Bracken Fern grows in all counties within the Adirondack Park Blue Line.
Habitat of Eastern Bracken Fern
Eastern Bracken Fern is widespread and abundant throughout its range, thanks to its ability to thrive in a wide variety of soils and exposures. It does best in full sunlight, but can also grow in semi-shaded areas. It prefers well-drained soils, but can also be found on wetter sites. It seems to do best in thin, acidic soil.
Eastern Bracken Fern's flexibility in terms of soil and site requirements means that it can flourish in a wide variety of habitats. It occurs as a weed in pastures, old fields, thickets, and under power lines. It grows in hardwood or pine forests, roadsides, and woodland edges. Although this fern usually occurs in non-wetlands, it can occasionally be found in wetlands.
Like the Hay-scented Fern, the Eastern Bracken Fern is a pioneer plant, frequently gaining dominance after logging or fire. This fern reproduces by rhizomes, which are located deep in the ground and so can survive extremes of heat, cold, drought, and fire. Even if the fronds are destroyed by fire, some of the rhizomes survive, insulated by the soil, allowing the plant to emerge in the fire's aftermath. In fact, fire benefits the fern by removing its competition.
In the Adirondack Mountains, Eastern Bracken Fern can be found in a wide range of ecological communities, including:
- Appalachian Oak-Pine Forest
- Boreal Heath Barrens
- Limestone Woodland
- Pine-Northern Hardwood Forest
- Pitch Pine Heath Barrens
- Pitch Pine-Oak-Heath Rocky Summit
- Pitch Pine-Scrub Oak Barrens
- Red Pine Rocky Summit
- Sandstone Pavement Barrens
- Spruce Flats
- Successional Fern Meadow
- Successional Northern Sandplain Grasslands
Eastern Bracken Ferns can be seen on many of the trails covered here, including the Old Orchard Loop at Heaven Hill and the sunny edges of the Logger's Loop Trail and the Barnum Brook Trail at the Paul Smith's College VIC. You can also find this fern identified with an interpretive sign in the Fern Garden adjacent to the Nature Museum at Heart Lake.
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