On occasion, people have shown me an odd plant specimen that was later identified as a whisk fern. This unusual native fern is also called the skeleton fork fern noting its boney, leafless stems. Often found in the nooks and crannies of garden beds, the whisk fern may be overlooked in your own landscape, or mistaken for a random weed. What is the whisk fern and what does it look like?
At a glance, the whisk fern looks almost like a type of seaweed, lime-green to yellowish-green in color, with small yellow, spore-producing structures on the end of starkly naked stems. The whisk fern has no roots and no leaves and is about one-foot tall in size. The green, Y-shaped stems contain chlorophyll and do photosynthesize. Instead of roots, the whisk fern has rhizomes which hold onto the soil or whatever substrate is available. Although leafless, you will see tiny leaf-like projections along the stem called enations. Just above these projections, the green to yellow round spore-bearing structures can be found. The spores are released and eventually develop into independent plants.
Native in the southern United States and the Caribbean, the whisk ferns are found in natural areas as well as in landscapes. They tend to like bright, indirect light as might be found in the dappled shade at the base of shrubs. I have commonly seen them in parking lot planting beds tucked in, and almost out of sight, amongst various shrubs. Although they appear weedy, there is no need to remove them if they are in close proximity to landscape plants. You may also find whisk ferns on trees or palms where they thrive as harmless epiphytic plants.
Whisk ferns do like moisture, so if they pop up in your landscape, you may be over-watering your other plants.
Interestingly enough, the Japanese have cultivated the whisk fern for some time and now have established over one-hundred ornamental cultivars. If you like the whisk fern, you can propagate your own by simply dividing clumps, or attempt the more difficult effort of germinating the spores. It can take up to a year to germinate these spores!
Consider whisk ferns a botanical oddity that may turn up in your landscape. Don’t treat them like a weed, but instead pause and ponder the wonder of a leafless, rootless plant! For more information on all types of natural and ornamental plant oddities, please call our Master Gardener volunteers on the Plant Lifeline on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 to 4 pm at 764-4340 for gardening help and insight into their role as an Extension volunteer. Don't forget to visit our other County Plant Clinics in the area. Please check this link for a complete list of site locations, dates and times - http://charlotte.ifas.ufl.edu/horticulture/Plant%20Clinics%20Schedule.pdf.
Lemke, C. (2012) Plant-of-the –Week – Psilotum nudum – Whisk Fern University of Oklahoma Department of Microbiology & Plant Biology. University of Oklahoma.
Introduction to the Psilotales – the Whisk Ferns (2016). University of California, Berkley.
Bailey, C. C. (2016) Whisk ferns are harmless, leafless plants. Tcpam.com.
Snyder, S. L. (2016) Psilophytes (Whisk Fern) in the Christopher B. Smith Preserve. Conservancy of Southwest Florida – Gopher Tortoise Preserve.
Garner, L. (2008) Unusual and Bizarre Plants – The Whisk Ferns. Dave’s Garden .com