Pellaea glabella (Smooth Cliff Brake)

Plant Info
Also known as:
Family:Pteridaceae (Maidenhair)
Life cycle:perennial
Habitat:part shade, sun; limestone or dolomite outcrops, cliffs, bluffs
Fruiting season:summer
Plant height:1 to 15 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

Pick an image for a larger view. See the glossary for icon descriptions.

Detailed Information

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

[photo of frond] Leaves (fronds) are evergreen, 1 to 15 inches long (typically less than 10) and to 3 inches wide, once or twice compound with 4 to 9 pair of leaflets (pinnae). Only the lower pinnae are twice compound or sometimes merely lobed in 2 or 3 segments. Pinnae and lobes are lance-oblong to linear, leathery, blue-green, the lower pinnae short-stalked, the upper pinnae stalkless.

[photo of pinnae underside, with a few hairs] Pinnae are hairless except sometimes for a few hairs on the underside near the midrib; veins are obscure. Stems are uniformly dark brown to purplish, slender, shiny, and smooth except for scattered hair-like scales. Plants grow spreading to sprawling in an asymmetrical clump, the withered remains often persisting to the next season. Fertile and sterile fronds are similar in size and shape.

Spores: Fruit type: spores on leaf

[photo of spores] The sori (group of spores) develop on fertile fronds starting in early summer and are found on the underside of a leaflet along the edge, the leaflet edge rolled around them so most are unexposed.


Smooth Cliff Brake is a fairly distinctive species, the only one really similar is the rare Purple Cliff Brake (Pellaea atropurpurea), found only in 4 counties in the southeast corner of the state. Purple Cliff Brake has rather larger pinnae, densely hairy/scaly stems, and typically grows erect, where Smooth Cliff Brake has—you guessed it—smooth stems, barring a few sparse hairs, and is more spreading/sprawling. Depending on the reference, there are up to 4 subspecies (or varieties) of P. glabella, distinguished mostly by the number of spores in a group (32 or 64—go ahead, count them) and the hairiness of the pinnae. The species is widespread in North America with the subspecies having more regional distributions; subsp. glabella is found in Minnesota and we are on the western edge of its range.

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More photos

Photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk taken at Lost Valley SNA, Washington County, and in Fillmore and Winona counties.


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

Posted by: Sean - Minneapolis, Stone Arch Bridge
on: 2015-07-29 13:10:14

This darling little plant has taken residence in the limestone cracks on the Stone Arch Bridge.

Posted by: Peter - Stillwater
on: 2020-08-29 16:39:32

Found in the cracks of a retaining wall on Olive st. (Next to Main st.) in Stillwater.

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