This sweet-smelling socialite spreads rapidly to form a lush colony of lacy, triangular-shaped fronds that ripple mesmerizingly in the breeze. The light green fronds release a fragrance of fresh-mown hay when brushed against or crushed. In fall, the soft fronds turn shades of yellow and golden russet before browning in late summer and going dormant for winter. The hardy, two-foot fern spreads assertively by thin, black rhizomes to fill in open spaces in shade or sun. Unlike many fern species, hay-scented fern is able to construct dense mats of groundcover that few weeds can penetrate because, rather than forming clumps, it grows individual fronds from an underground stem, or rhizome. Native to the northeastern US and Appalachian Mountains, hay-scented fern is most prevalent in Ohio's eastern half. It’s often found naturalizing along woodland edges with partial sun or in heavily logged areas with full sun, which can take a toll on the lushness of the fronds. Consider providing consistent moisture when planting this fern in open areas. Hay-scented fern will grow in moist or dry conditions, but its main requirement is good drainage. While it prefers slightly acidic, sandy or rocky soils (another common name is boulder fern), it adapts to a wide range of soil types. When siting in poor soil, add some compost to boost the nutrient level.
Because it establishes and spreads so quickly, hay-scented fern provides stability to soils and prevents erosion. It’s a quick fix for open spaces or gaps in greenery, and it also repels deer. This makes it a creative option for use as a border around a vegetable garden. However, the fern canopies are low to the ground with little space between them, so they cast a dense shadow where weaker plants, including native tree seedlings, fail to grow, according to master gardener Janet Scheren (fairfaxgardening.org). The ferns take over in deer-heavy areas because the deer avoid eating the ferns and browse more heavily on tree seedlings and other native plants. According to Penn State University Extension, this can be “…a significant problem in forest regeneration.” Hay-scented fern has many wonderful uses in the landscape, but it’s essential to remember its proclivity to crowd out seedlings and weaker plants.
Ferns, which are the second-most diverse group of vascular plants, are unusual in that they have roots, stems, and leaves but no flowers or fruits. Because spore reproduction wasn’t discovered until 1876, “fern seeds” were thought to be invisible. In the Middle Ages, people believed if they could capture these seeds, they would be invisible, psychic, and forever young. Shakespeare referred to this lore in his play, Henry IV, Part 1: “We have the receipt of fern seed; we walk invisible.” In reality, fern reproduction can be either sexual, which requires water, or asexual. Hay-scented fern reproduces mostly asexually, by the spread of rhizomes. The advantages of spreading by rhizomes is that the plant doesn’t need water to multiply, and it’s able to reproduce rapidly to colonize an area and ensure its survival.
Generally, hay-scented fern is distinguished from many fern species by its delicate, finely divided fronds; pinnules (subleaflets) that fold slightly over the spore structures; sticky, gland-tipped hairs; and newly mown-grass fragrance. The genus name refers to German botanist August W. Dennstaedt. The species name means "with small dotted lobes" and refers to the appearance of the sori on the lobes of the pinnules. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the scientific name was Dicksonia punctilobula. Other common names during that time period include fine-haired mountain fern, pasture fern, and hairy dicksonia.
Native habitats include rocky or dry woodlands and forests, sandstone ravines and cliffs, thinly wooded bluffs along rivers, rock outcrops, pastures, clearings, and road banks. Use as a groundcover in shade and woodland gardens, around patios, in open areas, and at edges of woodlands. Cut for use in flower arrangements.
Grows 1-2’ tall and 3-4’ wide.
Prefers part to full shade. Does better in full sun when it has consistent moisture.
Prefers moist, well-drained, slightly acidic rocky or sandy soils and adapts to average or dry clay or loamy soils. Somewhat drought tolerant when established.
Compound, hairy, yellowish-green leaves are up to a foot wide and 2-3' long. Each frond has 15-30 pairs of closely spaced pinnae (leaflets) along its light green rachis (stalk). There are 10-20 pairs of shallowly cleft pinnules (subleaflets). An indusium (protective membranes) under each pinnule contains the sporangia (spore-bearing structures); both develop in summer or fall. The sterile and fertile fronds are similar in size and shape.
Root system is rhizomatous and fibrous.
Hosts 4 species of Lepidoptera larvae, including serviceberry leafroller, pink-shaded and false yellow-dusted fern moths. (Pink-shaded fern moth is pictured here.) Two insects--Macrolophus tenuicornis and Monalocoris americanus—feed on the fern. The plant provides cover for smaller wildlife species and helps stabilize soils.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Some Native Americans reportedly used the fern to treat chills, lung hemorrhages, and skin conditions.
The plant was used in traditional medicine to treat fevers, digestive disorders, and respiratory issues.
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