If you go out in the woods today, you're in for a big surprise: Licorice ferns are having a picnic. These hardy ferns thrive at this time of year. I'm calling them Christmas ferns. I realize that ferns are not conifers. The licorice fern does not even associate with conifers. It does grow on trees, but avoids conifers. Its favorite place to grow is on the bigleaf maple trees, not even a distant cousin of conifers. However, this fern is such a fascinating native of our local forests that it deserves some special mention here, particularly at this time of year.
Unlike most of our native ferns, which thrive in the spring and summer and die down in the winter, the licorice fern thrives at this time of year when the winter rains come. You can see it growing on the trunks and limbs of bigleaf maples. Besides growing on maples, on occasion, it grows on other trees, for example red alder and Oregon white oak. It often appears in the ground next to the trees where it grows. It also grows on logs and rocks, sometimes rocks in the middle of streams. But there is one thing all these tree and rock locations have in common: They are all covered in lush mats of moss. This is what explains the unconventional life-style of the licorice fern. The ferns anchor to the tree with roots growing in a layer of soil-like dead moss. The ferns obtain nutrients from this soil. Most importantly, the moss acts as a sponge, collecting rain water that is essential to the ferns.
When the moss dries out in the summer, the ferns dry up, too. A summer rain will bring the dried ferns back to life. However, if the dry period lasts too long, the fronds of the ferns will die and fall off. When rain returns, the ferns sprout new fronds from the roots in the moss and grow throughout the wet winter, as long as temperatures stay above freezing. This out-of-phase growth pattern has prompted some to describe licorice fern as “summer-deciduous.”
The unusual growth habit of licorice fern may also explain why it grows on maple trees and not conifers. Although it is moderately shade-tolerant, licorice fern does need sunlight. And since the fern grows in the winter, it needs sunlight at that time of year. But most conifers keep their leaves in the winter. When the deciduous maples lose their leaves in the fall, plenty of winter sun can reach the ferns growing on them. However, the dark understory below conifers is not a friendly place for licorice ferns.
|Licorice fern root|
Why is this fern called “licorice fern?” If you taste a piece of the root, you may find that it tastes like licorice. It definitely has an interesting, sweet taste. Native Americans chewed the roots and used them to sweeten other foods. They also used them to treat a cough and other illnesses.
|Fungus growing in moss|
Pay special attention to these hardy denizens of winter when you hike in the woods. Another apt name for licorice fern would be winter fern, or even Christmas fern.
Licorice fern in Wikipedia
Licorice fern at Portland Nursery
I've just recently found your website and have been truly enjoying it and the subtle humor within your blog. After a lifetime of hiking in forests your site may actually help me remember simple key ways to distinguish and identify these elegant giants. thanks. kReplyDelete
Thank-you so much. When I'm out hiking, I'm always trying to learn new things, too.Delete
Ken-- way to grow and support the NW conifers. We are celebrating the 20th anniversary of Good Nature's treemendous conifers https://www.goodnaturepublishing.com/product-page/nw-native-conifers-posterReplyDelete
Thanks. I have your great NW Native Conifers poster.Delete
How do you clean licorice root after taken from treeReplyDelete
Can you eat licorice fern
After licorice drys does it become stronger
Tried it once. No experience cleaning or drying.Delete
When I was a kid we just scraped the brown covering off the root with a pocketknife and then chewed and sucked on it. It's pretty strong to just eat.ReplyDelete
I want join you guysReplyDelete
This is really good article about licorice fern. I found some lush green patches of ferns in Santa Cruz. I can't decide they are California Polypody fern , sword fern, or something else until I read your blog. licorice fern definitely fit the bill. Thank you very much for all the details about the habitat.ReplyDelete
Thanks for your comments. My goal this year is to learn more about ferns.Delete