The Life Cycle of Ferns

The Life Cycle of Ferns

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Verdant lush and lacy textured garden greenery, the graceful Fern conjures something a little different for everyone. From magical deep forests to get lost in, or spooky bogs and deephanging fern enchanted woods.

These elegant plants are feathery and very easy to grow and love in the right conditions. Highly ornamental, these fresh green foliage plants add a touch of finery to the landscape and are surprisingly tough!

The life cycle of a Fern is very different from the life cycle of many other plants but their way of doing things is the result of millions of years of perfecting the art of adaptation and survival!

All About Ferns!

According to the American Fern Society - Ferns are among the oldest groups of plants on Earth, and their fossil records date back to the middle of the Devonian era, 383-393 million years agofern with other colorful flowers - possibly even older! From the ancient massive Tree Ferns of yesterday to the diverse spreading and lush green groundcover Ferns of today which evolved relatively recently, only in the last 70 million years.

Nowadays they outnumber flowering plants and are the largest group of vascular plants, with around 10,500 living species identified and more being discovered every day!

Find out more about these plants that have stood the test of time and adapted to every change thrown at them because of their very unique morphology and specialized set of survival skills!

Parts of the Fern

Ferns can be broken down into four main parts:

  • The Frond - Usually divided into 'pinnae' and sometimes further divided into 'pinules' fern unfurling its fronds
  • The Rachis - What the pinnae attach to and becomes the stem
  • The Stipe - Aka: the petiole/stem that attaches the leaf to the root or rhizome
  • The Rhizome - the modified stem that grows roots and fronds

New leaves uncurl from charming little round fiddleheads and are the picture-perfect depiction of fractal spirals in nature. The botanical name for a fiddlehead is a crozier.

Mature leaves can then produce spores, fuzzy orange to brown spots on the undersides of reproductive leaves. These fuzzy spots are called sori, and multiples are called sporangia. In some species, the sporangia are on their own structures that resemble brown fuzzy flowering stalks instead of on the back of the leaves in tidy rows.

The Stages Of Fern Reproduction

Fern Spores

Ferns, unlike some other plants, do not flower in order to propagate. Instead, they reproduce sexually from spores or asexually by cloning. While many plants grow a mature adult form straight out of the seed, Ferns skip seeds and have an intermediate stage, called a gametophyte, which then grows into a mature Fern. 


Starting out from spores that are smaller than the human eye can see - almost appearing as dust! Spores are light as air and can travel for hundreds of miles on air currents.

There are two distinct stages in the Life Cycle of Ferns and there are two groups of Ferns, Eusporangiates (including Horsetail Ferns) and Leptosporangiates (including most of the landscaping Ferns we know and love).

In general (Ma Nature of course has some exceptions … and then exceptions to these exceptions!), the Fern Life Cycle can be broken down into two parts -

Alternation of fern generations

First Stage

Fern Spore Close Up

The first stage is that of the gametophyte. Spores are produced on the underside of mature plants. These germinate and grow into small, heart-shaped plants called gametophytes. The gametophytes produce both sperm and egg cells and will fertilize themselves, or others. Once fertilization occurs, the adult Fern will begin growing!

So when you look under your Ferns fronds and see those evenly spaced brown spots - don’t fret! Those are not bug eggs or a disease - They’re just baby Ferns in the making!

Second Stage

The second stage in the life cycle of a Fern is the adult stage. The fertilized gametophytes begin to look like mossy growth. After some time,young fern frond young fronds will appear, rising out of the moss. If direct sunlight falls onto the young fronds for an extended period of time, the plant may die easily. This is because the tiny stems are not strong enough to sustain direct light and will dry out.

Once these tiny fronds grow larger, the plant has a better chance of survival. When the veins are matured, moisture from the ground will be transported easily to the outermost leaves and the plant can withstand periods of direct sunlight. After the plant is large and mature, it will grow spores on the undersides of its leaves and the life cycle of a Fern will begin again.

Ferny Propagation

Ferns also have many species that clone themselves and spread by way of underground rhizomes, which are modified stems. Traveling on or just below the soil surface, they form colonies and politely naturalize when they’re happy!

Some Ferns also reproduce by forming Bulblets and Fernlets on the sides of their main clumps, much like Lily bulbs or Aloe Vera plants. While others can form roots and baby Ferns wherever the fronds touch the ground like spider plants or African Violets do! These little cloned daughter plants eventually grow roots of their own and grow right alongside their parent plants.

Basic Fern Care fern tree in shade

Loving shade and afternoon shade, these delicate and airy foliage plants light up the dingy gloom with their verdant color! Thriving best in moist, deep, highly organic, enriched environments, a few tolerate dry shade once established. Avoid soggy, poor drainage areas, but let them ramble around the edges of Rain Gardens and water features so long as it is well-drained.

Usually planted and left to their own devices, a once-a-year cleaning of their mounds before they come out of dormancy is about all the maintenance they need to look spiffy!

Fall in Love With Ferns!

Nature Hills has many varieties of Ferns for you to enjoy in your shady gardens and in your home! From the fine textured and airy Maidenhair Fern and Japanese Tassel Fern to the spreadingburgundy lace painted fern Ostrich Fern, Painted Ferns, and Lady Ferns, to the primordial looking Australian Tree Fern that looks like a dinosaur should be munching on its leaves!

Tolerating some of the coldest and the hottest growing zones of the US, there is a wide selection of native specimens and modern cultivars available to you! Including many houseplants and porch accents!

Check out the US Forest Services list of Fern Viewing in National Forests around the US where you can view large colonies and a wide variety of native Ferns!

Fern's fine-textured, heavily dissected foliage, lush soothing color, and airy textures - there’s so much to love about Ferns! It’s easy to become enchanted bynewly planted ferns in front of windowsill their dense clumps and mystical air. It’s easy to imagine gnomes and fairies hiding among their fronds!

It’s no wonder why they’ve captured our imaginations and earned their place in your landscapes! Check out the wide selection of fantastic Ferns available here at Nature Hills Nursery and enjoy these ancient, rugged, and adaptable garden gems for yourself!

Happy Planting!




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