Missouri Grape Ferns

Wildflowers get lots of attention because of their colors and variety. Ferns tend to get overlooked.

Some years ago I started looking at the ferns growing on the hills and up the ravines. The biggest problem with them is trying to identify them.

One group is easier: the grape ferns. Only three grow in Missouri and they are very different from each other. (Other ferns are written about in “Exploring the Ozark Hills“.)

All three grape ferns have a single leaf or frond. This lasts all season. They each put up a fertile frond with numerous ball-shaped sori giving the look of a bunch of grapes.

rattlesnake grape ferns are one of three Missouri grape ferns
In the spring lines of rattlesnake grape ferns show up mostly in ravines or lower, moister woods. They immediately produce their sori and spread their spores. Like other spring wildflowers, these are spring ephemerals, vanishing by mid summer.

Only two of the three species were supposed to grow around my area. The rattlesnake grape fern was easy to find in the spring.

The frond is lacy. The plant has a long underground stem so the fronds appear at intervals. It sends up its fertile frond in mid spring. By summer the plant has withered.

Dissected leaf grape fern plants survive all year long. It likes the ravine floors. The challenge with these is spotting plants with the two different fronds.

one of three Missouri grape ferns cut leaf grape fern has a fancy leaf
This is the lacy version of a cut leaf grape fern leaf. It too will turn red in the fall.

One frond has broad leaflets with wavy edges. The other has so many tiny lobes along the frond leaflet edges, it looks like fancy lace.

By the time this fern sends up its fertile frond in the fall, the leaflets are tuning color from the lovely green of summer to a deep, dull red for the winter.

cut leaf or dissected grape fern leaf in fall color
Cut leaf grape ferns have two frond shapes. This one has plain leaflets. The frond turns bronze or red in the fall. In the spring it will turn green again until it is replaced by next year’s frond.

Long before we moved here someone built up banks for a spring fed pond in the ravine behind the backyard. Near that pond I found a frond one fall that wasn’t turning red. It stayed green all winter.

This frond’s leaflets were different too. They were broader and thinner like a maple leaf is thinner than as oak leaf.

sparse lobed grape fern frond
This third Missouri grape fern, the sparse lobed, is supposed to be along the southern border. It must be moving north as I am a couple of counties north of the border. One key way to be sure of the identification is to watch in the fall. The sparse lobed fern frond does not turn red in the fall, but stays green all winter.

I watched this fern for a few years. It was the third grape fern, the sparse lobed fern, the one not supposed to grow here.

One year it disappeared. Maybe I’ve found it again this year. Maybe I should pay more attention to the ferns next season.