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What is Osmunda?

By Jessica Reed
Updated May 21, 2024
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Osmunda, also referred to as the "flowering fern," is a genus of ferns that can survive in a wide range of climates and appear to flower when the spores begin to change color. The group consists of approximately ten different species, with the most commonly known being the cinnamon fern, the interrupted fern, and the royal fern. It is uncertain where exactly the name "Osmunda" came from, but one theory suggests it comes from Saxon mythology. The Saxon god Osmunder, the equivalent of Thor from Norse mythology, hid his family inside a large group of ferns to protect them from danger, and thus the ferns were referred to as Osmunda after the great god.

Ferns in the Osmunda genus grow in climates both freezing and tropical, survive in sun or shade, and can tolerate certain wet or dry soils. The fern's fronds grow large and leafy in appearance. The term "flowering fern" comes from the misconception that the ferns produce flowers. What actually happens occurs due to the way the ferns reproduce.

Typically, a fern creates tiny spores on the undersides of its fronds, or leaves, which the wind carries away to grow away from the parent fern. In the Osmunda genus, instead of producing small, dot-like spores underneath the leaves, the ferns produce rusty-red, large, spherical clusters on top of the leaves. All the clusters appear at the same time and soon drop off, causing the fern to appear as if it has flowered. Many of the ferns themselves also turns a yellow or reddish color in the fall.

The most popular fern in this group is the royal fern. Originally grown in Europe, its scientific species name is "regalis" and forms thick clusters of leaves. It can grow up to 63 inches (160 cm) tall. Another common Osmunda fern is the interrupted fern, scientifically known as the "claytoniana." It grows tall and straight, and takes its name from the spores which form halfway up the fronds and seems to interrupt the green pattern of the fronds.

Finally, the Cinnamon Fern, known as cinnamomea, is widely known for its red colored fronds which appear only in the middle of the plant and grow straight up. The red fronds appear to be flowering and it is the most likely of the group to be confused for a flower instead of a fern.

For the ferns to grow properly, they need nutrient-rich soil, and extra moisture if placed in sunlight. Shadier areas can support ferns in dryer soils. Each fern thrives in a different range of temperatures. Gardeners should research ferns available to them and see which thrive in their climate zone as well as what specific requirements for that fern might differ from the others in the Osmunda genus.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Osmunda?

Osmunda is a genus of ferns known as the royal ferns, which are part of the Osmundaceae family. These ferns are ancient, with fossil records dating back approximately 180 million years. They are characterized by large fronds and a crown-like appearance, which is why they're often referred to as "flowering ferns," despite not producing flowers.

Where can Osmunda ferns be found?

Osmunda ferns are widely distributed across the globe, thriving in moist, temperate regions. They are commonly found in swamps, bogs, and wet woodlands. Their preference for such habitats is due to their need for consistent moisture to support their large frond structure and reproductive cycle.

How do Osmunda ferns reproduce?

Osmunda ferns reproduce via spores, not seeds. They have specialized fronds that bear spore cases, called sporangia, on the underside. When mature, these spores are released into the air and, if they land in suitable conditions, can grow into new ferns. This method of reproduction is typical of non-flowering plants.

What are some common species of Osmunda?

Common species within the Osmunda genus include the Osmunda regalis, or royal fern, known for its regal stature, and the Osmunda cinnamomea, or cinnamon fern, named for the cinnamon-colored fibers that cover its emerging fronds. Another species, Osmunda claytoniana, is known as the interrupted fern due to gaps in the leaflets where spores are produced.

Are Osmunda ferns endangered?

While Osmunda ferns are not globally endangered, some species face threats in specific regions due to habitat loss and environmental changes. Conservation efforts are in place in various areas to protect these ferns and their natural habitats, ensuring their survival for future generations to appreciate and study.

Can Osmunda ferns be used in landscaping?

Yes, Osmunda ferns are popular in landscaping due to their striking appearance and ability to add a prehistoric or woodland aesthetic to gardens. They are particularly suited for shade gardens or areas with moist soil. Gardeners value them for their low maintenance and compatibility with other shade-loving plants.

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