Polystichum braunii (Braun's Holly Fern)

Plant Info
Also known as: Prickly Shield Fern
Family:Dryopteridaceae (Wood Fern)
Life cycle:perennial
  • State Threatened
Habitat:part shade, shade; cool, moist, boreal forest, ravines, rocky slopes, cliff bases
Fruiting season:mid to late summer
Plant height:12 to 40 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 evergreen, up to 40 inches long and 8 inches wide, twice compound, lance-elliptic in outline, widest at about the middle, tapering to a pointed tip and gradually tapering at the base, with branches (pinnae) all along the stem nearly all the way to the ground, the lowest pinnae very short. Pinnae are up to 4 inches long, mostly lance-oblong in outline with 9 to 15 pairs of leaflets (pinnules).

[photo of rachis and upper leaf surface] Pinnules are sharply toothed, the teeth with bristled tips and curved up towards the pinnule tip (falcate). The upper surface is dark, glossy green, the lower surface paler. Stems (rachis) are densely covered in tan scales, especially near the base.

[photo of auricles pinnules] Many pinnules, especially near the rachis, typically have a small lobe (auricle) at the base. Veins are forked. Plants grow in an asymmetrical clump of 12 or more fronds, the fronds often arching.

Spores: Fruit type: spores on leaf

[photo of spores] The sori (group of spores) are found on the underside of the pinnule. They are circular and arranged in 2 rows, 1 on each side of the pinnule mid-vein. A translucent tissue (indusium) partly covers the spores and is attached to a stalk on the underside; it shrivels up as spores mature. Spores ripen to gray-brown or black starting in mid-summer. Not all fronds have spores and there is no other visible difference between fertile and sterile fronds.


Braun's Holly Fern is a species of cool, boreal forest and is only known from a handful of locations in Cook and Lake Counties. According to the DNR, it was first discovered in Minnesota in 1966 and listed as Endangered in 1984, but was downgraded to Threatened in 2013 after biological surveys discovered additional populations. It is somewhat more widespread in Wisconsin and also listed there as a Threatened species. It is distinguished from other ferns of similar size, such as Lady Fern (Athyrium Filix-femina) and the related Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), by the following combination of characteristics: rachis (stems) covered in tan scales, many auricled pinnules (leaflets), and the pinnae (branches) gradually tapering in size nearly all the way to the ground, with the lowest pinnae very short.

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More photos

Photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk taken in Cook County.


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

Posted by: Michele Flynn - Cook county near the Devil Track river
on: 2020-05-03 21:17:39

I was wondering what kind of fern it was when the snow melted and it was green.

Posted by: gary - Cook County
on: 2021-03-21 21:56:03

A fern I have been wanting to find for decades. Finally in 2019 I found several large plants of Braun's Holly Fern in a heavily shaded ravine with an ephemeral stream. This location may be a new population site for this species. The huge fronds of this plant are impressive.

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