Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Flowerless Plants by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Flowerless Plants by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Bracken

Teacher's Story

It is well for the children to study the animals and plants which have a world-wide distribution. There is something comforting in finding a familiar plant in strange countries; and when I have found the bracken on the coast ranges of California, on the rugged sides of the Alps, and in many other far places, I have always experienced a thrill of delightful memories of the fence corners of the homestead farm. Since the bracken is so widespread, it is natural that it should find a place in literature and popular legend. As it clothes the mountains of Scotland, it is much sung of in Scottish poetry. Many superstitions cluster around it—its seed, if caught at midnight on a white napkin, is supposed to render the possessor invisible. Professor Clute, in Our Ferns in Their Haunts, gives a delightful chapter about the relation of the bracken to people.

For nature-study purposes, the bracken is valuable as a lesson on the intricate patterns of the fern leaf; it is in fact a lesson in pinnateness. The two lower branches are large and spreading and are in themselves often three times pinnate; the branches higher up are twice pinnate; while the main branch near the tip is once pinnate, and at the tip is merely lobed. The lesson, as illustrated in the diagram of the fern, should be well learned for future study, because this nomenclature is used in all the fern manuals. The fact that a pinnule is merely the last division of a frond, whether it be twice or thrice pinnate, should also be understood.



Photo by Verne Morton.

The bracken does not love complete shade and establishes itself in waste places, living contentedly in not too shaded locations; it is especially fond of woodsides, and fence corners on high and cold land. As Professor Clute says, "It is found both in woodland and in the open field; its favorite haunt is neither, but is that half-way ground where man leaves off and nature begins, the copse or the thicket." With us it usually grows about three feet high, but varies much in this respect. The great triangular fronds often measure two or three feet across, and are supposed to bear a likeness to an eagle with spread wings. Its rootstock is usually too deeply embedded in earth for the study of any except the most energetic; it is about the size of a lead pencil and is black and smooth; in its way it is a great traveler, sending up fronds fifteen or twenty feet from its starting place. It also sends off branching rootstocks.

The fruiting pinnules look as if they were hemmed and the edges of the hems embroidered with brown wool; but the embroidery is simply the spore-cases pushing out from under the folded margin which protected them while developing.


1. Fruiting pinnules of the maiden-hair fern, enlarged.
2. Fruiting pinnule of the bracken, enlarged.

In both these species the spores are borne under the recurved edges of the pinnules.

Much on which to base necromancy has been found in the figure shown in the cross-section of the stem or stipe. The letter C, supposed to stand for Christ, thus made is a potent protection from witches. But this figure has also been compared to the devil's hoof, an oak tree, or the initial of one's sweetheart, and all these imaginings have played their part in the lives of the people of past ages. It was believed in England that burning the bracken from the fields brought rain; the roots in time of scarcity have been ground and mixed with flour to make bread. The young ferns, or croziers, are sometimes cooked and eaten like asparagus. The fronds have been used extensively for tanning leather and for packing fish and fruit, and when burned their ashes are used instead of soap.

In Europe, bracken grows so rankly that it is used for roof-thatching and for the bedding of cattle. The name "brake," which is loosely used for all ferns, comes from the word "bracken;" some people think that brakes are different from ferns, whereas this is simply a name which has strayed from the bracken to other species. Its scientific name, Pteris aquilina,  signifies eagle's wing.


The Bracken

Leading thought—The bracken is a fern which has taken possession of the world. It is much branched and divided, and it covers the ground in masses where it grows. The edges of its pinnules are folded under to protect the spores.

Method—Bring to the schoolroom large and small specimens of the bracken, and after a study is made tell about the superstitions connected with this fern and as far as possible interest the pupils in its literature.


1. Do you find the bracken growing in the woods or open places? Do you find it in the cultivated fields? How high does it stand? Could you find the rootstock?

2. Take a bracken frond. What is its general shape? Does it remind you of an eagle with spread wings? Look at its very tip. Is it pinnate or merely lobed? Can you find a place farther down where the leaflets, or pinnules, are not joined at their bases? This is once pinnate. Look farther down and find a pinna that is lobed at the tip; at the base it has distinct pinnules. This is twice pinnate. Look at the lowest divisions of all. Can you find any part of this which is three times pinnate? Four times pinnate? Pinna means feather, pinnate therefore means feathered. If a thing is once pinnate, it means that it has divisions along each side similar to a feather; twice pinnate means that each feather has little feathers along each side; thrice pinnate means that the little feathers have similar feathers along each side, and so on.

3. Can you see if the edges of the pinnules are folded under? Lift up one of these edges and see if you can find what is growing beneath it. How do these folded margins look during August and September?

4. Cut the stem, or stipe, of a bracken across and see the figure in it. Does it look like the initial C? Or a hoof, or an oak tree, or another initial?

5. Discover, if you can, the different uses which people of other countries find for this fern.

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