Britain’s ferns varieties: how to identify and best places to plant

The vibrant greens of ferns sing out on woodlands floors, but it can often be difficult to distinguish one species from another – learn how to identify some of the UK's most common fern species and the best places to plant.

Ferns growing in woodland setting in Scotland

These non-flowering plants are a common site in Britain’s woodlands and forests. They grow throughout the year and thrive in shady environments.

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A large number of fern species can be found in the UK, but it is often difficult to tell one from the other. Focusing on particular characteristics, such as leaf shape, size and colour, as well as the fonds, can help you with your identification.

Learn how to identify some of the UK’s most common fern species and the best places to plant.

Maidenhair spleenwort

Maidenhair spleenwort
Common spleenwort fern, Asplenium/Maindenhair spleenwort, growing on a stone wall
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Growing in mortared crevices on shady walls, even in urban areas, this lime-lover has dainty fronds and black stems with up to 40 opposite pairs of leaflets.

Best planted in shady gardens near a wall.


Hart’s tongue

Hart's tongue fern
Hart’s-tongue fern, Phyllitis scolopendrium, growing on a wall on the Gower Peninsula, Wales
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The only British fern with undivided fronds has glossy, tapering, evergreen leaves. Look for spore cases arranged in parallel rows of slits on the underside.

Best planted with access to some shade in a damp area of the garden.


Hard fern

Hard fern
Hard fern growing among winter leaves
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Each plant has two leaf types: outer, comb-shaped fronds are evergreen; inner reproductive fronds have narrow lobes and die in winter. Find it on heaths, moors and conifer woods.

Best planted in a damp, shady area of the garden.

British trees
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Lady fern

Lady fern
Lady fern growing on a wall
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Its graceful, feathery fronds droop at the tip, with lobes divided into smaller toothed lobes. Its lower stalk is grooved and clothed in brown scales. Found in damp, shady woods.

Best planted in a shady and damp area of the garden, near trees.


Royal fern

Royal fern
Drift of royal fern, Osmunda regalis, in a large walled garden at Norton Priory, Cheshire

A declining species found in wet places, it has fronds up to six feet long, some with brown spore cases at their tip. Stems have up to nine branches, bearing oblong leaflets. 

Best planted in a semi-shady spot with plenty of room to spread.


Bracken

Bracken, Pteridium aquilinum
Bracken, Pteridium aquilinum, in autumn
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A tall, woodland species, invading moors and low-grade agricultural land. Unfurling new fronds, rising from an underground stem, are initially clothed in soft brown hairs.


Male fern

Male fern, Dryopteris filix-mas
Male fern, Dryopteris filix-mas
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Common in woodlands, this has up to 30 main lobes, with the longest in the middle of the frond, divided into toothed smaller lobes. Spore cases have a kidney-shaped cover. 


Polypody fern

polypody fern (Polypodium vulgare)
Common polypody fern, Polypodium vulgare, growing on boulder by stream on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, Argyll

Evergreen flat fronds have clusters of golden spore cases under the lobes. Its creeping stems thread through dry-stone walls, rocky hedge banks and under mosses.


Parsley fern

Parsley fern, Cryptogramma crispa
Parsley Fern, Cryptogramma crispa, in Cumbria, UK
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Fronds have wedge-shaped leaflets, resembling parsley, growing in bunches from tips of creeping stems. Find on rocky screes, mountains and walls in Wales and the Lakes.