Lay a plant upon its side, sending roots directly from the stem into the soil with its leaves pointing towards the sky, and you have a fern. The rhizomes of a fern are comparable to a plant stem while its fronds are its "leaves." These ancient plants grow in moist, shady, forests, softening the landscape while adding cover and protection for small wildlife.
True ferns have a very different life cycle from seed bearing plants. Ferns produce tiny spores on the undersides of their fronds transported by wind. When a spore lands in a spot with enough moisture and shade it will begin developing into a gametophyte. This small reproductive body sends out a root, anchoring itself to the soil and then slowly grows in size, adding one cell at a time, developing both female and male reproductive organs. As soon as the female organs mature, moisture allows fertilization to occur and a plantlet begins to grow. This dependence upon the presence of moisture at the right moment during the life cycle of the fern is what limits most ferns to damp wooded areas.
In Grand Teton National Park, you are likely to find bracken ferns colonizing open disturbed areas, such as recent burn areas. This is the largest fern in the park. Look for the triangular shape of its fronds. Bracken fronds turn a rusty orange during early fall adding color to the fall foliage. Another fern you might stumble upon on your hike is the rockbrake or parsley fern, one of the few species of ferns that have adapted to grow in dry rock crevices and on talus slopes. On your way into one of the canyons look for lady ferns and shield ferns in the shaded forest understory.
As you walk through the park forests in early June, keep look for uncurling fronds, also called fiddleheads. Although many ferns are poisonous, the fiddleheads of some species are considered a delicacy. Indians in this area dried and ground the rhizomes of bracken ferns to make meal. However, these plants contain known carcinogens and should not be consumed.
Did You Know?
Did you know that pikas harvest grasses so they can survive the long cold winter? These small members of the rabbit family do not hibernate, but instead store their harvest as “haystacks” under rocks in the alpine environment.