The Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc.

Ferns of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden

The oldest public wildflower garden in the United States


Common Name
Crested Wood Fern (Crested Shield Fern)


Scientific Name
Dryopteris cristata (L) A. Gray


Plant Family
Wood Fern Family (Dryopteridaceae)

Garden Location
Woodland [Historical - not extant]


Prime Season
Spring Autumn


Fern terms


Shape: Crested Wood Fern sends up erect narrow fertile fronds and spreading sterile fronds from a very stout creeping rhizome.

Fronds: Fronds are up to 28 inches long and up to 5 inches wide. Sterile fronds are less than 3/4 the length of the fertile fronds, are more spreading, more glossy, and stay green into the winter; fertile fronds, which are more erect, die back. The blades are about 4 times longer than wide. Sterile fronds are slightly broader. Both taper to a blunt-pointed tip. The stipe is grooved, can be up to 10 inches long (1/3 of the total frond length), with a swollen base and has scattered brown scales. Blades are pinnate-pinnatifid.

Pinnae: Most pinnae of fertile fronds are twisted out of the plane of the blade and upward facing, sometimes almost parallel to the ground. The lowest pinnae are shorter than the upper and are broadly triangular and more widely spaced than the upper ones. These are important distinguishing characteristics. Pinnae toward the tip of the blade are less triangular and more closely spaced.

Pinnules: Pinnules have smooth margins, no bristles unless there has been some hybridization, and the pinnules on pinnae near the tip of the blade appear as blunt lobes. The basal pinnules on the pinnae are longer than those adjacent and they are of equal length on both sides of the central costa.

Fertility: The sori on the fertile fronds are prominent and located on the underside of the pinnule halfway from the midvein (the costule) to the pinnule margin - one row per side. They are covered with an indusium until ripe and then are dark brown when mature and the indusium falls away.

Fiddleheads have brown scattered brown scales, which remain on the stipe, and are not hairy.


Habitat: Like most Wood Ferns, this species likes rich, moist, neutral to acidic soil in partial to full shade. It is frequently found in marshes and swamps that do not have continuous standing water.

Names: The genus name Dryopteris, is derived from two Greek words, drys, meaning 'tree.' and pteris, meaning 'fern.' This leads to many members of this genus being commonly referred to as "wood" ferns. The species, cristata, is from the Latin meaning 'crested' or 'comb-like,' which the fertile fronds resemble in profile. The author name of the plant classification, (updating the work of Linnaeus) ‘A.Gray’ refers to Asa Gray (1810-1888), American botanist, Professor of Natural History at Harvard and instrumental in unifying plant knowledge of North America and author of Gray’s Manual - Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States, from New England to Wisconsin and South to Ohio and Pennsylvania Inclusive. In earlier times the plant was classified as Aspidium cristatum.

Comparisons: Other members of the Wood Fern Family found in the Garden are Goldie's Fern, Dryopteris goldiana; Marginal Wood Fern, Dryopteris marginalis; Male Fern, Dryopteris filix-mas; and historically, the Spinulose Wood Fern, Dryopteris carthusiana. Crested Wood Fern is best identified by 1) the blunt triangular basal pinna, 2) the erect but narrow fertile fronds with the pinnae twisted out of the plane of the blade, and 3) the shorter sterile fronds that are more glossy and remain green in the winter. If the pinnae have bristle tipped teeth near the lobe tip then the plant is a hybrid with another species of the Wood Fern Family.

See bottom of page for notes on the Garden's planting history, distribution in Minnesota and North America, lore and other references.

lower pinnae Drawing

Above: The lower section of a fertile frond which is a distinguishing indentifying key. Drawing from Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.

Below: 1st photo - Distinctive upward twisted fertile pinnae of Crested Wood -here a young frond. 2nd photo - fiddleheads. 3rd photo - New pinnae. Note the brown scales on the stipes.

Crested Woodfern Crested Woodfern fiddleheads Crested Woodfern new growth

Below: 1st photo - Detail of upper surface of the pinnules. Note that even those closest to the rachis are not separated to the costa of the pinna - hence pinnatifid. 2nd photo - Underside detail of the tip of a pinna - note that the upper most pinnules become just blunt lobes joined together.

Crested Woodfern pinnae detail Crested Woodfern pinnae detail

Below: 1st photo - The sterile fronds are more spreading vs erect and the pinnae are not so twisted out of the plane of the frond. 2nd photo - The lowest pinnae are shorter and triangular in shape

Crested Woodfern pinnae Crested Woodfern lower pinnae

Below: The sori of fertile fronds. 1st photo - maturing sori with the indusium falling away - note the location between the midrib and the margin of the pinnule. 2nd photo - These lowest fertile pinnae at the base of the rachis show the horizontal orientation of the pinnae.

Crested Woodfern sori Crested Woodfern lower fertile pinnae


Notes: Crested Wood Fern is indigenous to the Garden. Eloise Butler catalogued in on May 25, 1907 using the name applied at that period - Aspidium cristatum. She also planted it in 1918. Curator Martha Crone planted 18 plants of it in 1935, more in 1947 and 1955 and 102 of them in 1956 when she developed the Fern Glen. By the time of her 1951 Garden census the name in use was Dryopteris cristata.

Crested Wood Fern is found throughout the lower Canadian Provinces except Labrador and in the U.S. it is found in all the northern tier states and then east of the Mississippi River it is found in most states of the far south. It is considered threatened or in danger in New York, Tennessee and Washington states. In Minnesota it is found in most counties of the northern 2/3rds of the state, absent in the SW quadrant. Ten species of the genus Dryopteris are found in Minnesota.

References and site links

References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.

graphicIdentification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.