Ferns and all their Uses Part 1

This is part 1 of all those ferns and fern- allies growing on the British Isles as well as many other countries in the temperate or even tropical world!

The fiddleheads of our Royal Fern are very ornamental and can be eaten as food!

Ferns flourished before all the flowering plants came on earth and still thrive in many niche areas all over the world.

It is a large and divers group and a short account of their classification follows on the next page. For each group there may be one or two important species which have some story to tell or ethnobotanical use!

Below is a lovely short poem about the Ferns, written for the former students of and by Ian Trueman, Emeritus Professor in Plant Ecology, University of Wolverhampton many years ago.


When the green weeds rose from the sea

We, the great-leaved plants, were the last to raise our heads.

But we soon became perfect in the horsetail forests,

When the coal was being made in sun and steam.

And there, quiet under the bristle-leaved trees

We became perfect, as you see us now.

And quiet, and secret, and everlasting

We still unfold our ancient dance

Under the proud stems of our seed-borne sons.

Links are provided from various websites for you to look into each group or plant a bit further. Such as the Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora, where you can find out exactly where it grows in the B.I. This time I used copies of prints of ‘The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland’ as well as pictures sourced through Wikipedia Common. Medicinal uses from ‘The Medicinal Flora of Britain and Northwestern Europe’ by Julian Barker. But please note this is an educational blog only and going out harvesting rare plants is not advisable for use as medicine and should be left to a qualified herbalist! Pictures by Matt Summers unless stated.

You can listen to this radio play by Brett Westwood called Natural Histories: Ferns: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000b80h

General information and classification of Ferns:

The PTERIDOPHYTES or Ferns & Fern-allies have varied habit and leaf structure but are distinctive from the flowering plants in that they do not bare flowers but have spores and spore structures, which are an important identification feature.

The life cycle of the fern has two different stages;

  • sporophyte, which releases spores, and
  • gametophyte, which releases gametes.

Gametophyte plants are haploid, sporophyte plants diploid. This type of life cycle is called alternation of generations. To follow the life cycle of the fern, begin at number one in the diagram of this link.

Stace divides all the ferns and fern-allies into 4 informal large groups:

  • Lycophytes with 1) Lycopodiaceae – Clubmoss family 2) Selaginellaceae -Lesser clubmoss family and 3) Isoetaceae – Quillwort family
  • Eusporangiate ferns with 4) Ophioglossaceae- Adder’s tongue family
  • Calamophytes with 5) Equisetaceae – Horsetail family AND
  • Leptosporangiate ferns or True ferns with 16 families (see with entry there)

Please use the jump-links provided in the Contents to quickly get to the family you want on the next page.



1 LYCOPODIACEAE – Clubmoss family

Lycopodium clavatum or Stag’s-horn Clubmoss

2 SELAGINELLACEAE – Lesser clubmoss family

Selaginella selaginoides or Lesser Clubmoss

3 ISOETACEAE – Quillwort family

Isoetes lacustris or (Lake) Quillwort


4 OPHIOGLOSSACEAE – Adder’s-tongue family

Ophioglossum vulgatum or Adder’s-tongue

CALAMOPHYTES   or Horsetails

5 EQUISETACEAE – Horsetail family


6 OSMUNDACEAE or Royal Fern family

Osmunda regalis or Royal Fern

7 HYMENOPHYLLACEAE – Filmy-fern family

  • Hymenophyllum tunbrigense or Tunbridge Filmy-fern
  • H. wilsonii or Wilson’s Filmy-fern
  • Trichomanes speciosum or Killarney Fern

8 MARSILEACEAE – Pillwort family

Pillularia globulifera or Pillwort

9 SALVINIACEAE – Water fern family

Azolla filiculoides or Water Fern




1 LYCOPODIACEAE – Clubmoss family

Lycopodium clavatum or Stag’s-horn Clubmoss (Wikipedia)

Lycopodium clavatum or Stag’s-horn Clubmoss

This is the best known of 3 native species.

A prostrate, evergreen perennial herb of heaths, moors and mountains.

The spores of this moss, “lycopodium powder“, are explosive if present in the air in high enough densities. They were used as flash powder in early photography and magic acts.

Traditional Medicinal Use:

The oily yellow mature spores can be used fro inflamed skin especially babies and the elderly. The infusion of the entire plant can be used for inflammations of the bladder!

tablets for symptoms of excessive flatulence, anxiety and headaches. Also see this website on medicinal uses.

2 SELAGINELLACEAE Lesser clubmoss family

Just one native species:

Selaginella selaginoides or Lesser Clubmoss (by Jerzy Opiola in Wikipedia)

Selaginella selaginoides or Lesser Clubmoss

In Britain and Ireland it had mostly disappeared from lowland areas by 1930, but its distribution in upland areas remains largely unchanged.

3 ISOETACEAE – Quillwort family

This has 3 native species, the best known one is:

Illustration of Isoetes lacustris (Wikipedia Common)

Isoetes lacustris or (Lake) Quillwort

The lake quillwort has many long, narrow leaves from 8–20 cm long and 0.5–2 mm broad, widening to 5 mm broad at the base. There is a sac that produces the spores at the bottom of each leaf base. The plant has a very short stem, called a corm, where all the leaves and roots are attached close together. It does not have traditional roots, but instead some of its leaves are modified to act like roots. These pseudo-roots are called rhizomorphs, and are attached to the bottom end of corm. The upper leaves are green and found sprouting in a clump.

Reproduction usually takes place during the late summer or early autumn. The sacs at the bottom of leaves create two types of spores, female (megaspores, about 0.5 mm diameter) and male (microspores, a few micrometres in diameter). These spores represent the gametophyte phase of the life cycle.


This species is one of a few cultivated species of quillworts, either as an aquarium plant or as an educational resource.



4 OPHIOGLOSSACEAE – Adder’s-tongue family

Has 3 native species, the best known is:

The curious Adder’s-tongue can be difficult to spot! At Sutton Park and picture by Mike Poulton.

Ophioglossum vulgatum or Adder’s-tongue

Ophioglossum vulgatum grows from a rhizome base to 10–20 cm tall (rarely to 30 cm). It consists of a two-part frond, separated into a rounded diamond-shaped sheath and narrow spore-bearing spike. The spike has around 10-40 segments on each side.

Former Use:

Traditional European folk use of leaves and rhizomes as a poultice for wounds. This remedy was sometimes called the “Green Oil of Charity”. A tea made from the leaves was used as a traditional European folk remedy for internal bleeding and vomiting.

Next the

CALAMOPHYTES   or Horsetails

5 EQUISETACEAE Horsetail family 

There are 11 native species and numerous more hybrids mentioned in Stace of this fascinating and useful plant.

Equisetaceae is the only surviving family of the Equisetales, a group with many fossils of large tree-like plants that possessed ribbed stems similar to modern horsetails. Pseudobornia is the oldest known relative of Equisetum; it grew in the late Devonian, about 375 million years ago and is assigned to its own order.

Medicinal Use:

Against Chronic degenerative processes; atherosclerosis; also in healing and repair of eg brittle nails and bones.

This interesting plant was covered in a former post, see link.

Field horsetail  or Equisetum arvense (by H Zell in Wikipedia)



This has 16 families described in Stace. In this post we cover the first 4:

  • 6) Osmundaceae – Royal Fern family
  • 7) Hymenophyllaceae – Filmy-fern family
  • 8) Marsiliaceae – Pillwort family
  • 9) Salviniaceae – Water fern family
  • 9a) Cyatheaceae ( for the non-native Cyathea dealbata)

6 OSMUNDACEAE or Royal Fern family

Osmunda regalis or Royal Fern

This is a species of deciduous fern, native to Europe, Africa and Asia, growing in woodland bogs and on the banks of streams. The species is sometimes known as flowering fern due to the appearance of its fertile fronds. It produces separate fertile and sterile fronds.

The name Osmunda possibly derives from Osmunder, a Saxon name for the god Thor. The name “royal fern” derives from its being one of the largest and most imposing European ferns.

Ornamental Use:

Osmunda regalis is widely cultivated in temperate regions. The species and the cultivar ‘Cristata’ have both gained the Royal Horticultural Society‘s Award of Garden Merit.

Other known uses:

The roots, along with those of other species of Osmunda, are used for the production of osmunda fibre, used as a growing medium for cultivated orchids and other epiphytic plants.

According to Slavic mythology, the sporangia, called “Perun‘s flowers”, have assorted magical powers, such as giving their holders the ability to defeat demons, fulfill wishes, unlock secrets, and understand the language of trees.

Seasoned royal fern is also used in the dish Namul in Korean royal court cuisine.

The young shoots of the fern are, along with the similar shoots of many other fern species, known in some places as fiddleheads, and eaten as food, thought to have an asparagus-like taste.

Medicinal Uses:

For bruising, bleeding and sores (both internal and external); deep litter mattresses of fresh fronds were prepared to relieve rheumatic pain and stiffness, and also for children with rickets!

7 HYMENOPHYLLACEAE Filmy-fern family

These are beautiful and often appear as very dark green or even black clumps and may be mistaken for a robust moss or liverwort. In most species, the frond, apart from the vascular tissue, is only a single cell thick, and they do not have any stomata. Therefore, they are very vulnerable to desiccation which limits the habitats in which they can survive!

A good collection used to be at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in a special Filmy Fern House, next to the orangery.

This family has 2 native genera with 3 species:

Hymenophyllum tunbrigense or Tunbridge Filmy-fern; H. wilsonii or Wilson’s Filmy-fern and Trichomanes speciosum or Killarney Fern.

Trichomanes speciosum or Killarney Fern. ( Picture by Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz, Wikipedia)

8 MARSILEACEAE Pillwort family

Pillularia globulifera (illustration of Wikipedia)

Pillularia globulifera or Pillwort

A small, rhizomatous fern growing on the edges of non-calcareous lakes, reservoirs, ponds or slow-flowing rivers, and sometimes on damp mine workings or as a submerged aquatic.

Pillwort can be grown in a “bog garden” or as a marginal aquatic in a garden pond.

9 SALVINIACEAE Water fern family

Azolla filiculoides or Water Fern

A floating neophyte fern of canals, ditches, ponds and sheltered bays in lakes and rivers. It is most frequent in calcareous water, or near the sea.

It gives complete coverage of the water in only a few months. Each individual plant is 1–2 cm across, green tinged pink, orange or red at the edges, branching freely, and breaking into smaller sections as it grows. It is not tolerant of cold temperatures and, in temperate regions it largely dies back in winter, surviving by means of submerged buds. It harbors the diazotrophic organism, Nostoc azollae, in specialized leaf pockets. This ancient symbiosis allows N. azollae to fix nitrogen from the air and contribute to the fern’s metabolism.

The species has been introduced to many regions of the Old World, grown for its nitrogen-fixing ability that may be used to enhance the growth rate of crops grown in water, such as rice, or by removal from lakes for use as green manure.

Banned From Sale after April 2014. An invasive, non-native plant.

Water fern is a small free-floating water plant that forms dense mats. It was introduced for ornamental use in ponds and aquaria but its introduction into the wild has meant it has spread rapidly throughout England in the last 50 years.

What’s the problem?

It spreads mainly vegetatively, which makes it difficult to eradicate as it only takes a small section to float downstream to start a new colony, but it can also spread by producing minute spores. It out-competes native species by forming a dense covering on the surface of the water. This blocks out light and can also deoxygenate the water. The dense mats can also appear to be a solid surface so animals and humans can fall into the water.This species is listed on Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act in England and Wales therefore, it is also an offence to plant or otherwise cause to grow these species in the wild and after April 2014 this species will no longer legally be for sale in England and Wales.


This is an ornamental tree fern family with the dubious record of the Silver tree-fern or Cyathea dealbata which is endemic to New Zealand.


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