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MEET: Bracken Fern

You've likely already met Bracken Fern if you've spent any time in the northern forests. Bracken Fern grown in areas that have been disturbed by fire or logging and enjoys full sun but can also be found in partially shaded areas. It is a tall fern about waist high, rising out of the ground on one stalk and then branching off into three 'brackets' of leaves. Hence the name, Bracken Fern.

You don't see it in mature beech maple forests and it's not a fan of swamps either, but any forest with Aspens, birches, smaller white and red pines always seems to have a few. It can blanket entire fields is left unmowed, even shading out small slower growing trees. It is an aggressive spreader via roots which can go as deep at 10 feet underground to avoid drought, fire or severe cold. Generally, ferns are a delicate plant, reproducing slowly via spores and sensitive to interference. But not Bracken Fern, almost nothing can stop Bracken Ferns in the northern US. If you intend to plant it as a landscape or ornamental plant, please know it will spread....everywhere. Mowing does help control it but digging it out is nearly impossible.

Bracken fern is a deciduous fern meaning it turns color and dies back each year, only to emerge triumphant in the spring. In the fall, its leaves can turn a brilliant yellow or a burnished ocher color, lighting up the forest floor or field in the late fall light. In spring, it emerges with the typical fern fiddlehead but although they are plentiful, they are not advisable to eat. While they are not outright poisonous, they do contain carcinogenic chemicals. . Bracken ferns also create allelopathic chemicals which limit the growth of other plants below them as well.

While this may seem an unfair advantage, Bracken Ferns are actually incredibly effective at colonizing areas after fires. Their deep roots, dense shade cover of the ground below and annual die back allow and area to regenerate slowly. Deer and other woodland critters don't eat Bracken Ferns but the plants provide lots of good cover for them to hide, nest and travel in.

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