Cystopteris fragilis Fragile fern

Epithet means "fragile, brittle."

Deciduous, 8 to 16 in. (20 to 40 cm). Zones 2 to 9.

description: The rhizome is short-creeping, bearing food-storing stubs of old stipes. Fresh green stipes are grooved and one-half of the frond length. Lanceolate blades are bipinnate with up to 15 pairs of thin-textured lax pinnae. Sori are bundled in bladderlike torch-shaped indusia. The new fronds unfurl early, somewhere between the welcome blossoms of snowdrops and crocuses, eagerly announcing, albeit precociously, the arrival of spring. The fronds are almost all abundantly fertile. On the downside, they often collapse (or at least look dark and weary) soon after dispersing their spores early in the summer.

range and habitat: This is one of the most common of the world's ferns with populations distributed in cool mountainous habitats from the Siberian cold to the high-altitude tropics. Plants prefer damp sites within the rocky chinks of a lime substrate. With its widespread distribution, Cystopteris fragilis appears to be taking on a life of its own, producing variants and hybrids along with backcrosses. It is reputed to be the most poorly understood of European ferns botanically, and the entire range of complex relationships is currently under study.

culture and comments: These ubiquitous harbingers of spring are easily cultivated. They like being cold and nestled into limestone crumble, although they will adapt almost anywhere. Unfortunately, they tend to be lacking in dynamics and, unless the landscape is severely restricted by winter cold, are best used as fillers for areas where other, more ornamental options have not been successful. Watch out for slugs.

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