Not many of the plants growing in the Wrekin Forest share a direct link to the time when this landscape was literally taking shape. With a lineage stretching back over 300 million years, however, ferns are one of the few that could! These non-flowering plants, which reproduce by spores, belong to the same primitive family as horsetails and, like them, grew to tree-sized proportions in prehistoric times. Nowadays, you won’t need to crane your neck to identify a Wrekin fern, which is all the better because getting to know these shade-loving woodland plants is surely one of the forest’s most rewarding pastimes…
To get to grips with identifying the ferns of the Wrekin Forest, it’s essential to gain an understanding of their fronds, that part of the plant growing above ground. Forming the main body of the frond, the blade encompasses the central vein (or rachis) and the feather-like structures that branch out from it, which are known as pinnae (below, the undivided portion of the stalk is known as the stipe). Botanically speaking, ferns are arranged by the number of times the frond divides, with the pinnae providing the basic structural division. In many species, the pinnae divide into smaller leaflets, called pinnules, beneath which, in fertile fronds, the spore-carrying pods (the sori) are carried. Where the frond divides just once, it is called pinnate, twice, bi-pinnate and, where the pinnules themselves sub-divide, thrice or tri-pinnate. Beneath the ground, many ferns spread on creeping rhizomes, and the final items for now in our basic fern glossary, crozier and fiddlehead, are alternate terms used to describe the tiny furled fronds that may regularly be seen poking out of springtime woodland soils.
Owing to its famed ancient wooded status, the Wrekin Forest would almost certainly have been a focal point for the rabid attention of Victorian era fern collectors. In fact, many of the earliest surviving accounts for the area issue from the Nineteenth Century — and a number of species have not appeared in the record books again since! Listed below, however, is a quartet of ferns you could expect to see in the forest today.
Hart’s Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium): after spending the best part of a paragraph dealing with basic divisions of the frond it seems appropriate to begin by highlighting a species that has none at all! In essence, the Hart’s Tongue fern lives up to its name and its undivided and strap-like, leathery fronds are not only highly distinctive but also unique in the UK. Many members of the Asplenium family (aka: wall ferns) enjoy rocky situations and although the Hart’s Tongue is a woodland plant, it thrives on soils overlying limestone — making the Limekiln Woods a natural destination in which to view it.
Key ID features: dark green, shiny undivided fronds; crimson coloured sori ripen over winter and are arranged in neat herringbone patterned rows.
Broad Buckler Fern (Dryopteris dilatata): the Dryopteris family are stout, medium to large sized ferns and its members include some of our most common woodland species. Where The Wrekin is concerned, the Broad Buckler definitely falls into that category and is found growing all around the hill, even becoming dominant on drier, acidic soils. Its fronds have a distinctive shuttlecock-like appearance and are tri-pinnate in form, possessing pinnules with distinctive downward sloping edges.
Key ID features: ‘c-shaped’ sori on mature plants are common to all Dryopteris ferns. However, the rowing boat shaped scales on the stipe of the Broad Buckler also have a dark central stripe, which distinguishes it from other Buckler ferns.
Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina): Lady Ferns are clump forming, medium-sized species with delicate, shuttlecock-shaped bi-pinnate fronds. Common and widespread in the west of the UK, they are particularly adept at colonising acidic woodland soils and stream banks. Their pinnae bear a resemblance to the Male Fern (Dryopteris filix-mas) but are a lighter shade of green and possess pinnules that are more deeply grooved.
Key ID features: J-shaped sori have ragged edges and mature examples resemble miniature slugs; rachis has a very pronounced groove on the upper surface.
Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum): anyone who has ever visited the top of The Wrekin Hill in summer cannot have failed to notice the invasive presence of this, the UK’s only branched fern. Bracken is a prolific coloniser of acidic lowland heath but generally prefers sunny, free-draining locations, eschewing alkaline soils — meaning this is a plant you are unlikely to see in large parts of Limekiln Wood. Its spores, which appear in strips along the curved edges of the pinnules in late summer and autumn, are well-known carcinogens. However, they are not produced annually and may appear as infrequently as once a decade.
Key ID features: regularly seen in the presence of Foxglove around midsummer; fronds turn brown and die back in winter; distinctive croziers have unbranched fronds radiating from the stipe at various intervals.
Many ferns thrive in damp, shady conditions and are well suited to a life among trees. Limekiln Wood is a great place to begin searching for them, not least because its alkaline soils largely inhibit the invasive bracken that covers the summits of St. Lawrence’s Hill and The Wrekin. However, the other woodlands that comprise the heart of the forest, including Wenlock’s Wood, Gibbon’s Coppice and Short Wood, are also worthy of your attention. Chermes Dingle (which lies to the south of Little Hill, beyond Spout Lane) is a particularly good place for ferns and sports records of species not locally recorded elsewhere in recent times, including Golden-scaled Fern (Dryopteris affinis agg.) and Hard Fern (Blechnum spicant), a typical species of the sloping, wet acidic woodlands found here. While The Wrekin is perhaps most notable for its bracken colonies, it’s also worth checking the hill’s many rocky outcrops as they represent habitat favoured by a number of species including the Hard-shield fern (Polystichum aculeatum), last recorded here in 1877! Speaking of which…
Here’s a list of ferns last recorded in the Wrekin Forest in the Nineteenth Century. If you think you’ve found one of them, feel free to drop us a line:
Black Spleenwort (Asplenium adiantum-nigrum): this small, glossy plant has a triangular-shaped frond and belongs to the same family of wall ferns as the Hart’s-tongue (with which it sometimes hybridises). Recorded on The Wrekin in 1862, it can often be found occupying niches in rocky places.
Maidenhair Spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes): another wall fern that regularly frequents rocky outcrops. Recorded on The Wrekin in 1877 but a tantalising sighting from the wider forest landscape, at Garmston, was made more recently, in 2008.
Hard-shield Fern (Polystichum aculeatum): the golden-yellow fronds of Hard-shield fern (the name is derived from the shape of its sori) are regularly witnessed in damp, rocky places on lime-rich soils, which should make the Wrekin Forest a natural home to them. However, they were last recorded here, in Limekiln Wood and on the hill itself, in 1877! They have been sighted more recently in the Ironbridge Gorge within Lydebrook Dingle, one of the many Wrekin stream valleys that flow into the River Severn.
Oak Fern (Gymnocarpium dryopteris): one of two UK Oak fern species, this small, bright green plant not only colonises shady woodland but grows among hilltop rocks, too… although not on The Wrekin it seems — where three Nineteenth Century records are all that exist!
Narrow Buckler Fern (Dryopteris carthusiana): Dryopteris ferns are notorious hybridisers and this species (which, as its name suggests, has narrow fronds) regularly interacts with Broad Buckler where the two grow close together. The latter is a widespread Wrekin species but the former, which favours wet woodland, does not appear to have been recorded since 1865, when an example was found growing within the vicinity of The Ercall.