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Male Fern

Dryopteris filix-mas

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Plant Profile

Dryopteridaceae (Wood Fern)
Life Cycle:
Maximum Size:
2 metres tall
Cliffs, hedgerows, rocky places, walls, woodland.
Flowers absent. Ferns reproduce by spores.
The spores ripen from July to September.
Evergreen. Light green and feathery bipinnate leaves which taper at both ends.
Other Names:
Common Male Fern, Worm Fern.
Frequency (UK):

Similar Species

Other Information


Dryopteris filix-mas, also known as male fern or common male fern, is a perennial fern in the family Dryopteridaceae. It is native to Europe, Asia, and North America, and is commonly found in woods, hedgerows and along rocky cliffs.

The plant has large, evergreen fronds that are typically 50-100 cm long and 15-20 cm wide, and are deeply lobed and glossy, with a dark green color. The fronds are arranged in a rosette, and have an elongated, triangular shape. The fertile fronds are found separately and are erect, typically with an elongated shape and are covered with brown sori (spore-producing structures) on the underside.

D. filix-mas is commonly used as an ornamental plant in gardens and landscapes. It is well suited to shady sites and tolerates a wide range of soil types. It can be propagated by spores or by dividing the rhizomes.

This fern species is a low-maintenance plant and not known to be invasive. However, in some areas it can spread aggressively, which can be controlled by regular monitoring, removing any new growth, and also by using rhizome barriers.

Dryopteris filix-mas has a long history of use in traditional medicine, particularly for skin conditions, tumors and as an anthelmintic, but there is no scientific evidence to support these uses, and more research is needed to confirm the plant's medicinal effects and determine appropriate dosage and usage.


The Male Fern, or Dryopteris filix-mas, is a perennial fern species native to Europe, Asia, and North America. It is a popular ornamental plant in gardens and parks, but it also has a rich history of medicinal use.

Physical Description

The Male Fern typically grows up to 2 meters in height, with fronds that can reach up to 1.5 meters in length. The fronds are dark green and leathery, and they are pinnately compound, meaning that the leaflets are arranged along a central axis. The leaflets are ovate or lanceolate in shape and have serrated edges. The fern also has a thick, scaly, brownish-black stem called a rhizome, which grows horizontally underground.

Habitat and Cultivation

The Male Fern prefers moist, shady habitats such as woodland floors, stream banks, and rock crevices. It is typically found in temperate and boreal climates, but it can also grow in subtropical regions. The plant can be propagated by dividing the rhizome or by spores, which are produced in the spring and summer.

Medicinal Use

The Male Fern has been used for centuries as a medicinal plant. In medieval times, it was believed to have magical properties and was used to ward off evil spirits. In more recent times, it has been used to treat a variety of ailments, including tapeworm infections, kidney problems, and digestive issues.

The active components in the Male Fern are several different types of compounds called filicin, filicenin, and aspidin, which have anthelmintic properties. These compounds are toxic to parasites such as tapeworms, which are expelled from the body after treatment with the fern.

In traditional medicine, the fern was typically prepared as a decoction or infusion, and the rhizome was often used. However, it is important to note that the fern can be toxic in large doses and should only be used under the guidance of a qualified healthcare professional.

Ornamental Use

In addition to its medicinal properties, the Male Fern is also a popular ornamental plant. Its large, dramatic fronds make it an attractive addition to shaded garden areas, and it is often used in rock gardens and woodland gardens. The fern is also popular in container gardens and as a houseplant.

The Male Fern is a versatile and valuable plant, with a rich history of medicinal use and ornamental appeal. While it should be used with caution due to its potential toxicity, it remains a popular and useful plant in many parts of the world.

Ecological Significance

The Male Fern is an important component of woodland ecosystems. It provides shelter and habitat for a variety of insects, including moths and butterflies, which lay their eggs on the fronds. The fern also serves as a food source for some animals, such as deer and elk, which graze on the fronds.

Conservation Status

The Male Fern is not considered to be endangered or threatened, but it is protected in some areas due to its ecological importance. It is important to note that harvesting the fern for medicinal use can have an impact on local populations, and it is important to only use ferns that have been sustainably harvested or cultivated.

Other Uses

In addition to its medicinal and ornamental uses, the Male Fern has been used for a variety of other purposes throughout history. For example, the rhizome was traditionally used to make a brown dye for textiles, and the fronds were sometimes used for thatching roofs.

In modern times, some researchers have been exploring the potential of the Male Fern for use in bioremediation, which is the process of using plants to remove toxins from soil or water. The fern has been shown to be effective at removing heavy metals such as lead and cadmium from contaminated soil.

The Male Fern is a versatile and ecologically important plant with a rich history of medicinal and cultural uses. While it is important to use caution when using the fern for medicinal purposes, it remains a valuable and fascinating plant for gardeners, researchers, and nature enthusiasts alike.


The Male Fern belongs to the family Dryopteridaceae, which includes over 2,000 species of ferns. Within this family, it is classified in the genus Dryopteris, which is known for its mostly terrestrial ferns with scaly rhizomes. The species name, filix-mas, means "male fern" in Latin, and is thought to refer to the plant's large, robust fronds.


The Male Fern can be propagated by dividing the rhizome, which can be done in the spring or fall. It is important to use a sharp, clean tool to avoid damaging the plant, and to plant the new divisions in a suitable location with moist, well-draining soil.


There are several cultivars of the Male Fern that have been developed for their ornamental value. For example, 'Cristata' has fronds with crested tips, and 'Linearis Polydactyla' has fronds with many narrow, finger-like segments. These and other cultivars can add unique texture and interest to shaded gardens.


The Male Fern has a long history of use in folklore and traditional medicine. In addition to its use as a remedy for tapeworm infections, it has been used for a variety of other ailments, including rheumatism, wounds, and snake bites. It was also believed to have protective properties and was sometimes carried as an amulet.

One interesting folklore belief is that the Male Fern could be used to reveal hidden treasures. According to legend, if a person took a Male Fern root and put it in their mouth, they would be able to find hidden treasure. Supposedly, the root would start to glow when it was close to the treasure. However, it is important to note that this is simply a superstition and has no basis in reality.

In conclusion, the Male Fern is a fascinating and useful plant with a rich history of cultural and medicinal use. Whether used for ornamental purposes, bioremediation, or traditional medicine, this plant is a valuable and intriguing part of the natural world.

Distribution Map

Reproduced by kind permission of the BSBI.

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