The Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc.

Plants of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden

The oldest public wildflower garden in the United States

marsh fern

Common Name
Eastern Marsh Fern


Scientific Name
Thelypteris palustris var. pubescens (G. Lawson) Fernald


Plant Family
Marsh Fern Family (Thelypteridaceae)

Garden Location
Wetland [Historical plant, not extant]


Prime Season
Early spring to frost


Fern terms


Shape: Eastern Marsh Fern does not form clumps but instead raises single erect fronds along an underground rhizome.

Fronds - Fronds are either in sterile form or fertile form with the shorter sterile fronds appearing first in spring. The blades are lanceolate shaped, widest just below the middle. Fronds are 2 to 8 inches wide and 7 to 36 inches long and are produced through the Summer. There are no aromatic glands. The stipe is long - as long or longer than the blade, smooth, straw color above the base, sometimes with a few tan scales near the base. The upper side of the central rachis is grooved. Sterile fronds are shorter with shorter stipes. Blades are medium green to dark green, and vary from pinnatifid to pinnate - pinnatifid. The fertile fronds frequently appear twisted as the lower pinnae are arranged in a different plane than the uppers.

Pinnae: The pinnae are lance shaped, usually 12 or more pairs, perpendicular to the rachis, opposite each other, or sub-opposite, and perpendicular to the ground. The lower pinnae are slightly shorter. The fertile pinnae appear to be more narrow, due to the margins of the pinnules rolling over toward the underside.

Pinnules: The lower pinnae will be cut into pinnules almost to the costa. The back side of the costa can have sparse to dense fine whitish hairs. Veins on sterile pinnules fork. Pinnule margins are entire, not lobed or toothed but with some fine edge hair.

Fertility: The sori are placed on the back of the pinnule in close rows near the midvein. Sori are round with a thin, kidney shaped indusia covering them, usually hairy and without glands. The indusia drops away as the sori mature.


Habitat: Marsh Fern grows from a creeping rhizome. Fronds emerge along the rhizome. It is usually found in the moist ground of swamps, bogs, marshes and other wet areas but can also show up in wet prairie and wooded areas.

Names: The genus Thelypteris is derived from two Greek words - thelus, meaning a 'female' or 'a nipple' and pteris, meaning 'fern,' in particular a fern with a round sori on the fertile fronds. The species palustris means 'marsh loving' or 'found in wet places.' The variety name pubescens means 'with fine hair' referring to the hair usually found on the underside of the costa.

The author names for the plant classification are: First to classify was ‘G.Lawson’ which is for George Lawson (1827-1895) Scottish-Canadian botanist, considered the Father of Canadian botany. He helped create Canada’s first botanical garden. In 1864 he used the name Lastrea thelypteris var. pubescens. His work was amended in 1929 to the current name by ‘Fernald’ is for Merritt Lyndon Fernald (1873-1950) American botanist, Harvard Professor, scholar of taxonomy, author of over 850 papers, editor of the 7th & 8th editions of Gray’s Manual of Botany. In the past some authors placed the species in the genus Dryopteris but that is no longer accepted. Eloise Butler called it Aspidium thelypteris but that name was never accepted.

There are two varieties of Marsh Fern but only var. pubescens is found in North America. The second variety, var. palustris is found in Asia.

Comparison ferns: Marsh Fern may be confused with Hay-scented Fern, Dennstaedtia punctilobula, which also has tall single fronds, but there the stipe is always shorter than the blade and the stipes are hairy.

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: 1st photo - The shape of Marsh Fern frond, widest just below the middle. 2nd photo - 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 - a young frond just unfolding. 2nd photo - The lower pinnae have pinnules not quite cut through to the costa. Both the costa and the central rachis are grooved on the upper side, the rachis with dense fine hair. Pinnules have entire margins and a central mid-vein.

young frond pinnule

Below: 1st photo - the pinna on this plant are slightly offset from each other (sub-opposite). In both photos the curled edges of the pinnules of a fertile frond are evident. 2nd photo - mature sori.

pinna upper side maturing sori

Below: 1st photo - the sori are covered with a kidney or horseshoe shaped hairy indusia prior to maturity. This drops away at maturity - end photo.

indusia mature sori

marsh fern


Notes: Eastern Marsh Fern is indigenous to the Garden, Eloise Butler catalogued it on May 25, 1907 under the name of Aspidium thelypteris, which is an unaccepted name. She planted it in 1932 near the new Mallard Pool. Martha Crone planted the species in 1946 and listed it on her 1951 census as Dryopteris thelypteris. It has been continually listed on later census reports. Susan Wilkins planted it in 2006. In the early years of the Garden Marsh Fern was abundant, second only to the Interrupted Fern. It was found primarily as Eloise Butler wrote "massed in the marsh on the eastern side of the swamp" (note). Today you can see it in the Quaking Bog on the opposite side of Theodore Wirth Parkway from the Garden.

Within Minnesota, it is found in most of the state except for a number of counties in the southwest section of the state.

In North America Eastern Marsh Fern is found in the eastern half from the lower Canadian Provinces southward but not the deep south. There are 21 species of the Thelypteris genus in North America but only this one is found in Minnesota.

NOTE: See Eloise Butler's article Ferns in the Wild Garden - 1915.

Frances Theodora Parsons wrote in 1899: "In our wet woods and open swamps, and occasionally in dry pastures, the erect, fresh-green fronds of the Marsh Fern grow abundantly. The lowest pinnae are set so high on the long slender stem as to give the fern the appearance of trying to keep dry, daintily holding its skirts out of the mud as it were.

The plant's range is wide. As I pick my way through marshy inland woods, using as bridges the fallen trunks and interlacing roots of trees, its bright fronds standing nearly three feet high, crowd about me." From A GUIDE TO THE NAMES, HAUNTS, AND HABITS OF OUR COMMON FERNS

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.