A look at Ferns-{one} Bracken

There was a time when many people made a distinction between bracken and ferns. This is understandable as the bracken is found growing on heaths and other open exposed places, tall and strong, while those they recognised as ferns grew their more delicate fronds in shady humid places in woodland and besides stream and waterfalls. Many ferns grow like an upside down shuttlecock while the bracken produces a single leafy stem. 

Much however, depends on the environment in which they grow. Should the delicate Lady fern or the Broad Buckler fern be taken from the moisture setting of a wood and planted on an open exposed heath, where the drying winds and scorching sun, were constant companions they would soon loose their grace and delicacy.

Conversely, when bracken is encountered in a woodland with a light  and airy canopy , and its roots are anchored in deep leaf mould  the tender tall stems exhibit only slight resemblance  to the rough plants of exposed heaths and moorland.

Another very good example of this is illustrated during Victorian time. Victorians' had a passion for ferns. They ripped thousands of them up from their shady woodland homes and  transferred them to their dry sunny borders of exposed gardens, where they were expected to retain their attractiveness..If these 'gardeners' could not substitute conditions that they were taken from, they had no right to take them from their natural habitat in the first place. { It is now illegal to dig up any wild plant including ferns without the express permission of the land owner}.


Bracken { components}

Carl Axel mPteridium aquilinum nf.jpgagnus Lindman {1856-1928]


Success may be the bracken's downfall.

One of the main reasons that bracken is disliked by many is that it is a successful grower.It will fill wide expanses of forest land, fringing woodland copses, competes with heather and gorse on open heath and moorland and covers many a hedge bank. It grows in such profusion, that in days gone, by it was worthwhile in the autumn to harvest the dry fronds. They were stacked in the manner of hay, to be used for bedding cattle

In spite of all this and the fact that it is very common , it can be grown, as nature frequently grows it-one of the most graceful and delicate of all our native ferns. The bracken is like the Polypodies, in as much as it forms no crown, but has a fleshy creeping stout under ground stem, from which the great fronds arise, at somewhat distant intervals. However, unlike the Polypodies, the bracken stem creeps underground and not along the surface as is the case with the former.

Bracken does not possess the 'chaffy' scales that most aerial crowns and shoots are provided with. The fronds of bracken push through the ground in late April or May, and it is not uncommon to see them suffering from frost damage, especially here in northern England. 

New season growth of bracken

Photograph by Dal

New growth

Bracken fronds expand very slowly, giving time to the great length of stipes { a stalk that bears the reproductive structures} and rachis { the main axis or stem of a compound {divided} leaf to harden before too great a strain is put upon it by the spread of the pinnae [leaflet}

Then the side branches of the rachis unfurls in pairs. at first these branches appear to be remote from each other, but when  the pinnules {lobes of the leaflet} have unfurled, the pinnae-each large enough for an entire frond {leaf} overlap, and the appearance of the fully expanded frond is impressive. The fully expanded fronds of the bracken have a triangular outline and have a rather leathery texture,- when growing in exposed places they become quite harsh to touch, but in woods is no harder than that of the male fern. In height it can be anything from a couple of feet up to nine feet tall.

It has been recorded as high as 12 feet {E.J.Lowe}, but the usual height averages around four to six feet. 

 It is normally thrice pinnate {three times divided} but sometimes four times. The pinnules are alternate and very deeply lobed. The stout stems are very dark towards the base-purple deepening to black-with a slightly raised line down each side, which has the power of cutting like a razor edge when drawn through the hand.

The sori form a continuous line along the margin of the pinnules on the back of the fronds. The indusium { a membranous outgrowth on the underside of the fronds that covers and protects the developing spores} being continuous with the edge of the pinnules. The spores produced by a single frond is enormous, but they are most observable during August on wards. Shouls you walk through a small colony of bracken at this time the spores form a rusty coloured hue.

The bracken is a social fern , uniting to form  very extensive colonies, and it is very rare  that one meets with a single plant. 

Bracken and folklore in Britain

Back in our history before the time of Linnaeus, some botanists called the bracken the lady fern {Filix foemina}. The bundles of woody tissue are so well marked , a feature of this fern, that if  a stem is cut across below the surface of the soil, they will be found occupying a central position.The darker colour and constant outline have attracted attention among country people who were always on the look out for fortuitous likenesses or 'signatures' which gave an indication for the use of natural things. {often referred to as the Doctrine of Signatures} Some stated that the figure inside the lower stem of the bracken was a double headed eagle, and this seems to have appealed to the early botanists for it has been crystalised in the plants specific name aquiline {eagle like}.

Others that looked back to the virtuous days of the Stuarts, told that it represented Charles the Second  hiding in an oak tree, and that it has been placed there as a perennial reproach to the bracken, which failed to seclude Monmouth hiding among its fronds after Sedgemoor.

Another school of thought regards this mark as a miniature  representation of the Devil's hoof, but the significance of this has been lost to us. Still another interpretation is that it is a monogram of the initials J.C. In some parts of Sussex they get all sorts of initials out of the marks, and use them for divining the name of future husband or wife, whose initials are thus revealed.

Bracken growing in woodland. Courtesy of Rasbak CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Distribution of bracken  in the UK.

 In England bracken occurs in every county. In the Highlands of Scotland it is found at an elevation of 2,000 feet and at all altitudes in between this and the sea shore in other places. It occurs in abundance in Wales and Ireland also. It is the sole British representative of a large genus whose name Pteris, from the Latin pteron {a wing}, was suggested by the wing like form of the expanded fronds. The specific name aquiline as already mentioned alludes to the spread eagle semblance of the woody tissue. It has many other country names in various localities and also various spellings such as braken,brakens, brecken,breckon,or shortened to brake or brake fern. other names included Adder's spit,{Sussex} lady brake fern in Dumfires and Roxburgh; Brake fern {general} Ern fern {eagle fern in Scotland},  farn {Gloucestershire} Oak fern {Norfolk} and common fern.

Bracken and historical medicinal uses.

The following comments are of historical interest only and not for modern day use. the stems and fronds in days long ago were employed in diet drinks and also for medicinal preparations for many disorders. 

Culpeper the 16th century herbalist stated--" That the roots being bruised and boiled in mead and honeyed water, and drunk, kill both the broad worn and the long worm in the body, and abates the swelling and hardness of the spleen.

The leaves eaten purge the belly and expel choleric and watery humours that trouble the stomach. The roots bruised and boiled in oil or hogs' lard make a very profitable ointment to heal wounds or splinters forgotten in the flesh. the powder of them used in foul ulcers causes their speedier healing.

Ferns being burned, the smoke thereof drives away serpents, gnats and other noisome creatures, which in fenny counties do, in the night time, trouble and molest people lying in their beds with their faces uncovered."

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Bracken and conservation

Although bracken provides a suitable habitat beneficial to some species of wildlife in the UK it can become invasive and be detrimental to other habitat types, which in general encourage more species of wildlife than occurs in bracken cover alone.

Because of this, and depending on the location, some conservationists find that controlling bracken or/and the removal of it may prove beneficial to a greater number of species. However, this needs to be carried out in full and completely for small pieces of the root system left undetected will begin to sprout and the colony will become established again.

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