Botrypus virginianus (Rattlesnake Fern)

Plant Info
Also known as:
Family:Ophioglossaceae (Adder's-tongue)
Life cycle:perennial
Habitat:part shade, shade, sun; deciduous, conifer and mixed forest
Fruiting season:summer
Plant height:6 to 18 inches
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: FACU MW: FACU NCNE: FACU
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 type: compound

[photo of leaf] Sterile frond is a single leaf, triangular in outline, 4 to 10 inches long and about as wide, 3 or 4 times compound and often appearing as a whorl of 3 leaves, each with up to 12 pairs of leaflets. Leaflets are thin, bright green, linear to narrowly lance-shaped, tapering to a pointed tip, have a prominent midvein, are typically deeply lobed, the lobes shallowly lobed to coarsely toothed and blunt at the tip. Veins are free. Leaves are held horizontal or nearly so. The stem below the leaf (stipe) is 2 to 8 inches long, red-tinged especially near the base. Leaves and stems are hairless.

Spores: Fruit type: spores on stalk

[photo of fertile frond] The fertile frond is a branched cluster that arises from the base of the leaf, the central stalk appearing as a continuation of the main stem and is half to twice as long as the sterile frond. Six or more erect to ascending branches are at the tip, with hundreds of pale yellowish-green, bead-like capsules that contain the spores. Spores turn brown when mature.


Formerly known as Botrychium virginianum, Rattlesnake Fern is the most common of the grape ferns in North America, and the largest of those found in Minnesota. The finely dissected leaves may resemble those of some other grape ferns (now Sceptridium species), but Rattlesnake Fern is distinguished by the single sterile leaf (often seeming like a whorl of 3 leaves) attached well above the base of the stem, where other grape fern sterile fronds are attached at or near the base. Rattlesnake Fern leaves also wither away by fall where most grape fern leaves persist through winter.

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More photos

Photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk taken in various locations across Minnesota.


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

Posted by: Suzanne C - Wayzata
on: 2017-05-14 08:45:35

After years of hand pulling Garlic Mustard and other invasives, these lovely little ferns are popping up in the little woods behind my house.

Posted by: cheryl batson - swatara
on: 2018-05-30 04:33:48

We have these growing at the cabin in Aikin county along with lady fern, ostrich fern, and sensitive fern.

Posted by: Nancy Linden - Mille Lacs County
on: 2019-06-27 07:28:26

I found this fern in woods just north of Princeton , MN. It was releasing it's spores today.

Posted by: Alan Straka - North of Rochester
on: 2022-01-08 16:27:12

When we moved here 30 years ago, rattlesnake ferns were ubiquitous in the woods behind our house. It has been years since I have seen any. I have no idea what happened to them. I would love to re-establish them if I could find a source.

Posted by: gary - Cook County
on: 2022-07-30 18:43:02

Found 17 plants of this species in a group in a sugar maple forest.

Posted by: Paul henjum - Apple Valley
on: 2022-09-23 15:49:21

Found in Alimagnet Park in Apple valley Dakota county it looks like it is spreading in an area cleared of Buckthorn, dry shade.

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