Bracken fern is another one of my longtime favorite plants – and not just because the young, furled tips are tasty in salads or while on the trail. This unpretentious plant is both attractive and hardy. You see it in woodsy understories, on dry hot hillsides, and everywhere in between. In the autumn, it’s dry leaves add a particular, pleasant scent to the fragrance of the forest. Wildlife uses it for food and nesting material; sometimes I’ve found beaten-down areas in larger patches, where deer have bedded down to sleep.
Distinct from other ferns, its large (up to 2 feet) fronds are broadly triangular, and often have an airy quality to them, with a lot of space between each sub-frond. Underneath, the fertile spores are found in a line hugging the edge of every leaflet. Even when these sori aren’t brown and ripe, you can see them as a raised green rim – another good diagnostic clue. None of the many other ferns in the area has this combination of obtuse outline, frond type, large size, and brown spore rim. Pteridium aquilinum can be found growing throughout most of North America. In fact (according to the USDA plants database) the only state in the US that it isn’t found in is South Dakota, which is odd enough that one has to wonder if it’s a data glitch. Or… maybe there is a legit ecological reason that this is the only state our fern has shunned!