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Northern Oak Fern

Gymnocarpium dryopteris

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Plant Profile

Cystopteridaceae (Bladder Fern)
Life Cycle:
Maximum Size:
40 centimetres tall
Cliffs, gardens, riverbanks, riversides, rocky places, waterside, wetland, woodland.
Ferns do not have any flowers.
The spores ripen in July and August.
A bright green, deciduous fern. Triangular, 2 to 3-pinnate, ovate fronds. Dark purple stems. Pale brown scales.
Other Names:
Common Oak Fern, Oak-leaved Fern, Western Oak Fern.
Frequency (UK):
Occasionally seen  

Similar Species

Other Information


Gymnocarpium dryopteris, also known as oak fern or oak-leaved fern, is a species of fern that is native to North America, Europe and Asia. It is a perennial fern that typically grows to be about 6-12 inches tall and wide. The fronds of G. dryopteris are deciduous, which means they die back in fall and grow again in spring, and are about 1-2 ft long and 6-12 inches wide. They are compound and feathery, with a long central stem that has many leaflets or pinnae, which are further divided into smaller segments or pinnules. The leaves are green and glossy on the upper surface and paler on the underside, with a distinctive shape that resemble oak leaves, hence the common name "oak-leaved fern"

The oak fern prefers moist, well-drained soils and partial to full shade, and it is commonly found in woodlands, along streams and rivers, and in rocky or sandy areas. It is considered an important food source for several species of wildlife. It is also a popular ornamental plant due to its attractive foliage, and it can be grown in gardens, along borders, or as a ground cover.

This fern is hardy in USDA zones 3-8, and can handle some sun exposure in cooler climates, and is relatively easy to grow if given suitable conditions. G. dryopteris is a widely distributed and common fern, not considered as threatened species and it is commonly available commercially.


The Northern Oak Fern, Gymnocarpium dryopteris, is a delicate and fascinating fern that can be found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. It is a member of the Dryopteridaceae family, which includes several other popular ferns such as the Lady Fern and the Christmas Fern.

Appearance and Habitat

The Northern Oak Fern is a deciduous fern, meaning it loses its leaves in the winter. It typically grows to be between 8 and 24 inches tall, with a slender and erect stem. The fronds of the fern are arranged in a rosette and can be either sterile or fertile. Sterile fronds are shorter and have a more delicate appearance than the fertile fronds, which are taller and bear the fern's spores.

This fern is typically found in moist and shady environments, such as woodlands, stream banks, and moist meadows. It prefers soils that are well-drained and acidic and can be found at elevations ranging from sea level up to 8,000 feet.

Life Cycle

Like all ferns, the Northern Oak Fern goes through a fascinating life cycle that includes both sexual and asexual reproduction. In the spring, the fern's spores are released from the fertile fronds and dispersed by the wind. When conditions are right, the spores will germinate and grow into a small heart-shaped structure called a gametophyte.

The gametophyte is the sexual phase of the fern's life cycle and can either be male or female. The male gametophyte produces sperm, while the female gametophyte produces eggs. When the sperm and egg unite, they form a new plant, which will eventually grow into the familiar fern structure.


The Northern Oak Fern has a few medicinal and culinary uses. The fern's rhizome, or underground stem, has been used in traditional medicine to treat a variety of ailments, including rheumatism, indigestion, and tuberculosis. However, it is important to note that there is little scientific evidence to support these uses.

The fern's young fiddleheads, which emerge in the spring, are also edible and have been used as a vegetable in some cultures. However, it is important to ensure that they are properly cooked, as they contain small amounts of toxic chemicals.

Conservation Status

The Northern Oak Fern is considered to be a species of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, it is still important to be aware of its habitat requirements and to take steps to protect the environments in which it grows.

In some areas, the fern's habitats are being threatened by development, logging, and other human activities. Additionally, invasive species such as Japanese knotweed can outcompete the fern and take over its habitat. By taking steps to protect and conserve the Northern Oak Fern's habitats, we can help ensure that this fascinating fern continues to thrive for generations to come.


The Northern Oak Fern may be small and unassuming, but it is a fascinating plant with a unique life cycle and important ecological role. By learning more about this fern and taking steps to protect its habitats, we can help ensure that it continues to be a part of our natural world for years to come.

More about Northern Oak Fern

The Northern Oak Fern is also known by other common names, including Northern Wood Fern, Alpine Oak Fern, and Mountain Oak Fern. Its scientific name, Gymnocarpium dryopteris, comes from the Greek words gymnos, meaning "naked," and karpos, meaning "fruit," referring to the fern's lack of a protective covering over its spores.

One interesting aspect of the Northern Oak Fern is its ability to adapt to different environments. In some areas, the fern may grow in full shade, while in other areas, it may be exposed to more sunlight. It is also able to tolerate a wide range of soil types, from sandy to clay soils.

The Northern Oak Fern has been used in traditional medicine by some Indigenous groups, such as the Ojibwe and Potawatomi. The fern's rhizome has been used to treat a variety of ailments, including fever, colds, and diarrhea. The fronds have also been used to make a tea that was believed to have a calming effect.

In addition to its medicinal and culinary uses, the Northern Oak Fern is also valued for its ornamental qualities. It is a popular plant for shade gardens and can add a delicate and graceful touch to landscaping.

Overall, the Northern Oak Fern is a fascinating plant with a unique life cycle, ecological role, and cultural significance. As with all plants and animals, it is important to take steps to protect and conserve its habitats to ensure that it continues to thrive and contribute to our natural world.

Distribution Map

Reproduced by kind permission of the BSBI.

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