Dryopteris cristata (Crested Fern)

Plant Info
Also known as: Crested Shield Fern, Crested Wood Fern
Family:Dryopteridaceae (Wood Fern)
Life cycle:perennial
Habitat:part shade, shade; swamps, marshes, moist to wet woods
Fruiting season:late spring, summer
Plant height:10 to 28 inches
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: OBL MW: OBL NCNE: OBL
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


[photo of fiddleheads] Fiddleheads emerge in spring, light green and covered in papery tan scales.

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

[photo of sterile leaves] Leaves are 10 to 28 inches long and 2 to 5 inches wide, narrowly lanceolate to oblong in outline but tapering at the tip. Leaves are once-compound, the leaflets with 6+ pairs of lobes with bristly tipped teeth, the lower leaflets triangular in outline and about twice as long as wide. Veins are forked and extend to leaflet edge.

[photo of fertile leaves] Leaflets on fertile fronds are rotated and held parallel with the ground, a position not considered “normal” for a fern. Sterile leaves are evergreen while the fertile leaves, which are much larger than sterile leaves, die back in winter. The stem is green with scattered tan scales, especially near the base. Plants grow in an asymmetrical clump, erect to nearly prostrate.

Spores: Fruit type: spores on leaf

[photo of sori] The sori (group of spores) develop in late spring to midsummer and are found on the underside of fertile leaves. Spores are yellowish, turning dark brown at maturity. The sori are circular and found halfway between mid-vein and leaflet edge. There is a translucent tissue (indusium) that partly covers the spores and is attached on inner curve.


Crested Fern is fairly easy to identify by the small, broadly triangular shaped lower leaflets, and the rotated leaflets on the fertile fronds. It doesn't really resemble anything else in its habitat of wetlands and moist woods. As I was researching the distribution of Crested Fern in Minnesota, the herbarium records indicated it was frequently found together with Spinulose Wood Fern (Dryopteris carthusiana). In my own field work I found this to be true, as wherever I came across D. cristata, D. carthusiana was often right next to it (the reverse is not true, however). D. cristata hybridizes with at least 5 other species, 2 of those hybrids are known to be in Minnesota: D. ×boottii (cristata × intermedia, only known in Winona County) and D. ×uliginosa (carthusiana × cristata, known in about 15 counties).

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More photos

Photos by K. Chayka taken at Falls Creek SNA, Washington County, and in Ramsey County. Photos by Peter M. Dziuk taken in Ramsey and St. Louis counties.


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

Posted by: Terry S - Carlton, Aitkin, and St Louis Counties
on: 2017-08-11 13:59:39

In my current work in willow carrs in these counties, it is definitely not the case that D. carthusiana and D. cristata are close associates. In these habitats, I have never encountered D. carthusiana, and D. cristata almost always occurs on Sphagnum moss. Thelypteris phegopteris is a reliable associate, as are Equisetum fluviatile and Onoclea sensibilis. In my experience in the north woods, Dryopteris carthusiana is more common in wooded habitats. The one place where I found the pairing of D. carthusiana and D. crisitata that you mention in your notes was in a forested area where there was also a lot of Equisetum pratense. But in the open or shrubby habitats where I have been working the last two summers, D. carthusiana is rare.

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