Dryopteris fragrans (Fragrant Fern)

Plant Info
Also known as: Fragrant Wood Fern, Fragrant Shield Fern, Fragrant Cliff Fern
Family:Dryopteridaceae (Wood Fern)
Life cycle:perennial
Habitat:part shade, sun; often on limestone; cliffs, talus slopes
Fruiting season:summer
Plant height:3 to 12 inches
Wetland Indicator Status:none
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

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Detailed Information

Leaves and stems: Leaf attachment: basal Leaf type: compound

[photo of fronds] Leaves (fronds) are compound, evergreen, narrowly elliptic in outline, tapering at both ends, 3 to 12 inches long, up to 2 inches wide, with 15 to 30 pairs of branches (pinnae) that are mostly opposite and may be crowded and overlapping along the central stalk (rachis). Pinnae are mostly oblong in outline with 6 to 12 pairs of leaflets (pinnules), and scattered brown scales along the midvein. Pinnules are irregularly lobed or with rounded teeth. Veins are branched and forked.

[photo of pinnae, pinnules, glands and scales] Pinnules are variably covered in short-stalked glands, especially along the edges and on the underside. Stems are grooved, also glandular, with tan to rusty colored scales that are largest near the base, becoming smaller as they ascend the stem. The plant grows in an asymmetrical clump, the fronds mostly erect but can spread in all directions. Old, shriveled stems persist to the next season.

Spores: Fruit type: spores on leaf

[photo of whitish indusium] The sori (group of spores) mature in mid-summer and are found on the underside of the leaf. They are circular and arranged at vein tips. A large, kidney-shaped, translucent tissue (indusium) covers the spores and is attached on inner curve. Indusium are often crowded and overlap. Spores ripen to dark brown or black.

[photo of mature, rusty colored indusium] The indusium is initially pale green to whitish and turns brown to rusty colored with age.  Not all leaves have spores and there is no significant, visible difference between fertile and sterile leaves.


The smallest of the Dryopteris species, Fragrant Fern gets its name from the aromatic glands, most noticeable when fresh and sometimes described as a “fruity” fragrance. This characteristic, along with the rocky habitat, large scales all along the stem, the large, persistent indusium that turns from whitish to rusty brown, and the persistent, shriveled old fronds make this fairly easy to identify. At a casual glance it may resemble Rusty Woodsia (Woodsia ilvensis), with which it often grows side-by-side, but which is typically smaller, is densely hairy but not glandular, has hair-like indisium, and lacks the persistent, old fronds.

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More photos

Photos by K. Chayka and Peter M. Dziuk taken in Cook County.


Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?

Posted by: Greg - Ely
on: 2017-09-08 22:27:07

If I'm understanding the national map correctly Minnesota is the only state in the US where this fern is not threatened. I used to live in Ely a few decades ago and seen it on the rocky hills.

Posted by: Sharon Schaefer - Southern, 1 mile from the Iowa border.
on: 2021-03-29 13:35:45

I believe this is a fern given to me by a relative. Took it with me to Wisconsin, but left it when we moved to Florida. Tried to find it here. The garden center said it must be a northern fern. Don't grow here. I miss it.

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2021-03-29 13:45:00

Sharon, it seems unlikely this fern would survive in a residential landscape. Many ferns look similar; you were probably given a different species.

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