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
Male Fern


Scientific Name
Dryopteris filix-mas (L.) Schott


Plant Family
Wood Fern Family (Dryopteridaceae)

Garden Location
Historical - Not extant


Prime Season
Spring to Autumn


Fern terms


Shape: Male Fern is an erect fern with an upright rootstock, growing in dense woods and talus slopes. The upright arching green fronds grow from 1 to 4 feet in height.

Fronds: Fronds are dark green. The blades are ovate to narrowly lanceolate, up to 12 inches wide, widest about 1/3 of the way up from the base and gradually narrowing to a pointed tip. There is no visual difference between the fronds that have fertile sori and those that may not. There are no aromatic glands. Fronds are firm, not leathery, and die back in the fall, but may remain green overwinter. The central rachis is green with pale tan scales on the underside. The grooved stipe is quite short, forming less than 1/4 the length of the frond. The brown scales of the stipe are distinctive, being of two kinds - one hair-like and one broad. Fiddleheads emerge almost covered with the scales.

Pinnae: The pinnae are narrow and pointed to the tip with the basal pinnae much reduced in size. Pinnae are mostly in the plane of the blade, but young fronds can give the appearance of pinnae tilted upward from the blade plane, similar to those of the Crested Fern. Also, the lower Pinnae are shorter and somewhat tilted downward, similar to some other members of the Dryopteris. The division pattern is pinnate-pinnatifid and sometimes bi-pinnate near the base. On the rachis, the pinnae are not opposite each other but slightly offset. The upper side of the costa is grooved but the groove does not meet the groove on the rachis.

Pinnules: There will be 24+/- pairs of short pinnules on the pinnae. Margins of the pinnules are lobed and the lobes are slightly toothed, with pointed lobe tips at the end of the pinnule veins. There is no difference in length of the adjacent basal pinnules.

Fertility: The sori are large and evenly spaced on the back of the pinnule near the mid-vein, in a single series on either side of mid-vein, and usually found only on the upper part of the blade. Sori are rounded with a kidney shaped indusia covering them.


Habitat: Male Fern grows from a short thick rhizome in moist cool woods in partial to full shade and on talus slopes, preferring limey soils. Offshoots from the rhizome can form clusters over time.

Names: Male Fern supposedly got its common name from the shape of the creeping rhizome which, in some way resembles a bear's paw. Obscure?, yes. The genus name Dryopteris, is derived from two Greek words, drys, meaning 'tree', and pteris, meaning 'fern'. Many members of this genus are commonly referred to as "wood" ferns. The species, filix-mas, is from the Latin filix meaning 'fern' and mas meaning 'male'. The author names for the plant classification are: The first to publish information was '(L.)' which refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy. His work was amended by ‘Schott’ which is for Heinrich Wilhelm Schott (1794-1865), Austrian botanist who did extensive work on the Araceae family. His last position was director of the Imperial Gardens at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna.

In earlier years the plant was first classified as Polypodium filix-mas by Linnaeus, then Aspidium filix-mas in 1800 and finally reaching D. filix-mas in 1834.

Comparisons: The key to Male Fern is 1) no aromatic glands, 2) blades pinnate-pinnatifid with margins of the pinnules serrate to lobed with sharply pointed tips, 3) scales of two types on the stipe, 4) pinnae lance-like, long and narrow with a pointed tip with lowest pinnae opposite to sub-opposite, much shorter than those in the middle of the frond, 5) large rounded sori close to the mid-vein on the upper pinnae, 6) fronds erect with the stipe less than 1/4 the frond length.

Compare to the Lady Fern, Athyrium filix-femina: 1) no aromatic glands, 2) blades are 2-pinnate pinnatifid or can be 2-pinnate with pinnule margins without the sharp points, 3) the stipe with only scattered scales of one type, 4) pinnae similar but alternate not opposite, 5) sori various shapes but not round, 6) stipe generally longer than 1/4 the frond length.

There are many species of wood ferns with 14 in North America alone. Other members of the Wood Fern Family found in the Garden are Spinulose Woodfern, Dryopteris carthusiana; the Crested Wood Fern, Dryopteris cristata; Marginal Wood Fern, Dryopteris marginalis; and Goldie's Fern, Dryopteris goldiana.

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

frond Drawing

Above: A frond - widest just below the middle, lower pinnae much shorter, firm but not leathery, dark green narrow pinnae. 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: The pinnae are lance-like, pinnate-pinnatifid and as seen here, bi-pinnate near the base.


Below: The individual pinnules have lobed margins with pointed teeth at the lobe tips. Note the groove on the pinna costa and on the central rachis.


Below: 1st photo - the stipe with its broad and fine scales. 2nd photo - Maturing sori with the kidney shaped indusium still in place.

Stipe Sori

Below: Maturing sori on the two upper pinnae but no sori on the lower pair. Sori are usually on the upper pinnae only.


Below: Emerging fiddleheads.

fiddlehead Fiddlehead
full plant

Below and above: The fronds of Male Fern can have the shorter lower pinnae pointing downward and young fronds (below) can have pinnae somewhat tilted upward from the blade plane.

Male Fern


Notes: Male Fern is not native to Minnesota, but Eloise Butler first introduced the fern in Oct. 1918 with plants sourced from Gillett's Nursery in Southwick MA. Curator Martha Crone planted it in 1954 and Gardener Ken Avery planted the fern in the Garden in 1965 as he was finishing work on the new Fern Glen. The range of the fern in North America is both east and west of Minnesota. Wisconsin (where it is rare) and Illinois are the closest adjacent states to the east, and then it is found from Michigan eastward to the coast and in eastern Canada. It has has a large range in the west being found in all states from the Rockies to the coast and also in a few of the plains states such as Okla. and Texas. In western Canada it is reported in Sask., Alta. and B.C.

Rarity: It is generally considered a rare fern with a number of states listing it with varying degrees of concern.

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.