How to identify ferns with our illustrated guide

We have illustrated 12 fern species that dominate the winter landscape when most plants have died back.

Hart's tongue fern. © Felicity Rose Cole

One doesn’t immediately associate ferns with toughness: their delicate fronds seem made for shady summer dingles and sun-dappled streamsides. These are hardy plants, though, and many of Britain’s native species are wintergreen. It’s a delight to see their filigree-patterned leaves picked out with hoar frost on a chilly December day.

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Western hedges and woods would look very different without the luxuriance of hart’s tongue, its long, glossy leaves lending a tropical feel to the countryside. The beautiful arching fronds of shield ferns also persist into winter, making them popular garden plants.

Polypodies add a welcome splash of green to walls and tree trunks. Spleenworts are also at home on walls, their wiry roots extracting every nutrient from the stone or brick. Their leathery fronds are resistant to ice, but sea spleenwort is more tender so lives near the coast, where salty breezes reduce the risk of frost.

All illustrations by Felicity Rose Cole

1

Hard fern Blechnum spicant

Hard fern. © Felicity Rose Cole

Dark green, tough, leathery fronds. Woods and moors on acid soils in west and north; local elsewhere.

2

Maidenhair spleenwort Asplenium trichomanes

Maidenhair spleenwort. © Felicity Rose Cole

Small. Delicate fronds with rounded leaflets on wiry, black stalks. Walls and rock faces; more local in east.

3

Wall rue spleenwort A. ruta-muraria

Wall rue spleenwort. © Felicity Rose Cole

Small. Dark green fronds with spoon-shaped leaflets. A lime lover: often on limestone or mortar of old brick walls.

4

Black spleenwort A. adiantum-nigrum

Black spleenwort. © Felicity Rose Cole

Small. Glossy, triangular fronds with reddish-brown or black stalks. Rocks, limestone, wall mortar and banks.

5

Rustyback fern A. ceterach

Rustyback fern. © Felicity Rose Cole

Small. Dull green fronds divided into blunt lobes with rusty scales on rear. Cliffs and walls; mostly in west.

6

Hart’s tongue fern A. scolopendrium

Hart's tongue fern. © Felicity Rose Cole

Strap-like fronds, not divided as in UK’s other evergreen ferns. Woods, hedges and walls; mostly in west.

7

Sea spleenwort A. marinum

Sea spleenwort. © Felicity Rose Cole

Small. Bright green, leathery fronds. Sea caves, rocky walls and building mortar on coasts in west and north.

8

Common polypody Polypodium vulgare

Common polypody fern. © Felicity Rose Cole

Simply divided fronds sprout from rhizomes on walls, hedgebanks and mossy tree trunks; scarcer in east.

9

Southern polypody P. cambricum

Southern polypody fern. © Felicity Rose Cole

Fronds broader and more palm-like than in common polypody. Old walls, cliffs and tree trunks; scarcer in east.

10

Soft shield fern P. setiferum

Soft shield fern. © Felicity Rose Cole

Long, soft fronds; stalks covered in brown scales. Hedges and wooded slopes; mainly in west and south.

11

Hard shield fern Polystichum aculeatum

Hard shield fern. © Felicity Rose Cole

Similar to soft shield fern, but fronds more leathery, with shiny leaflets. Wooded slopes and hedgebanks.

12

Wilson’s filmy fern Hymenophyllum wilsonii

Wilson's filmy fern. © Felicity Rose Cole
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Small, creeping fern with translucent fronds. Shady woodland in west and north, especially ‘Atlantic rainforest’.