When speaking to groups about ferns I often get asked if there are separate male and female plants. In botanical parlance this arrangement is called “dioecious.” Holly is an easily recognizable example. The simple response “no” usually generates follow-up questions related to the naming of ferns like “why are some called ‘lady ferns’ and others ‘male ferns’?” This confusion about gender is compounded by descriptions of fern propagation and the behaviours of sperm and egg in sexually reproducing ferns.
Reproduction in ferns is a complicated matter and a story all to itself. Put simplistically though, most ferns are hermaphrodites. The tiny gameteophytes that germinate from fern spores, and subsequently produce the plants we see as ferns, have the ability to create male or female sexual organs depending on the situation. That said, most folk aren’t familiar with this aspect of the fern ‘lifestyle.’ Therefore, getting at the root of genderization in ferns requires looking more to human anthropology than fern biology.
Over the centuries the concepts of ‘male’ and ‘female’ have been applied to many groups of plants. ‘Jack & Jill’ as a reference to the blue and pink colours of certain varieties of Pulmonaria comes to mind. Similarly, in ferns genderization is the direct result of our long-held, culturally-determined ideas of what it means to be a man or woman.
In short, men are robust and woman are dainty. Apply this to ferns and you get ‘lady ferns’ (Athyrium spp.) with their typically lacy-textured fronds, and ‘male ferns’ (Dryopteris spp.) often with thicker, more coarsely-textured foliage. In addition, male ferns commonly have hairs or scales covering their stems, while lady ferns typically have less, much like in men and women. Add the fact that lady ferns tend to have delicate stems that may break more easily in high winds while those of male ferns are thick and sturdy and, voila; you have the historical recipe for sexism in fern taxonomy.
How does this help in knowing and growing ferns? Well, like so many other socially-defined labels, not much really. For example, many male fern cultivars are very lacy looking and some lady ferns can get pretty large. In the end, both groups have many beautiful and useful varieties for the garden. What’s most important is choosing the right plant for the right job, regardless of gender – it is the 21st century after all!