Fern is known to be ancient, first appearing in the fossil record over 360 million years ago in the Devonian period, diversifying into modern species from the Cretaceous period 145 million years ago. Compare this to when our human ancestors hominins appeared, 6 million years ago.
Ferns are members of the plant kingdom, and are termed pteridophytes. Unlike most other plants, they do not produce seeds. Instead they reproduce by microscopic spores, that form under their leaves.
Try looking on the backs of fern leaves, especially in summer, to see the different spore patterns.
There are 4 main places that trees grow: moist shady woodland, rocky crevices, wetland/bogs and on trees. I found the wall ferns below in a graveyard close to the city centre in Nottingham. From left to right they are: maidenhair spleenwort, wall rue and black spleenwort. Wall ferns are good to search for in the Winter as they remain green, as they are extremely cold tolerant.
Try looking at cracks in walls to see if you can find any wall ferns.
Ferns on trees are harder to find. They tend to be in older established woodland. I took the picture below when I visited one of the Celtic Temperate Rainforests of Pembrokeshire. These are fantastic places to visit to find ferns, lichens, mosses and liverworts.
There are many ferns that prefer the shady, moist woodland floor. At the Weleda biodynamic garden where my Forest School site is based, Hart's Tongue fern are grown for their medicinal properties. It is known to be good for digestive problems, diarrhea and dysentery.
Many woodland ferns are sensitive to the cold and die back in Winter. Look out for the iconic unfurling fronds that appear in spirals when Spring arrives.
I am always very protective of ferns in a Forest School site, as they can so easily get damaged by trampling feet. I also find children are quick to pick and tear at them, not always appreciating their value in the woodland.
I have only ever used small pieces in any activities, and only then when ferns are abundant. The most obvious use for ferns in Forest School is inspiring creativity. There are many wonderful ways I have used fern including leaf rubbings, printing, pasting between tissue paper to make lanterns and laying on photo-sensitive paper.
Try laying pieces of fern on paper and making leaf rubbings with crayon or soft pencils
Bracken, on the other hand, is quite invasive, and in some locations it is actively removed as a conservation measure. It is alleopathic, which means it produces a chemical that inhibits the growth of other plants, and it spreads quickly through mycorrhizal division. Always check with the landowners, but they may be happy for you to remove bracken, and it is great for covering dens and shelters.
Health and safety note: always wear safety gloves as bracken can cause fine cuts like paper cuts. Bracken contains carcinogenic toxins and should never be consumed. Spores are produced from August to October and are thought to be carcinogenic.
It is fun, but quite challenging. to identify different ferns. I recommend the inexpensive "Key to common ferns" by the Fields Study Council.
Try getting hold of an ID guide and taking a fern identification walk.