If someone asked you what is the most common plant in the world, what wold you reply? Some botanists believe that, among the vascular plants, this title should be awarded to none other than our native Pteridium aquilinum, more commonly known as bracken. Bracken is found on every continent – bar Antarctica – and can survive at sea level and as high as 3,000m above.
Fossil records indicate that bracken, and other fern species, date as far back as 55 million years ago; 200 million years before the first flowering plants emerged. Bracken’s lack of flowers- and subsequent seeds- baffled early scientists as they pondered how these plants were capable of propagating. The apparent invisible nature of bracken seeds gave birth to the folklore: whoever held the tiny spores of bracken in their hands would become as invisible as the seeds. We now know, of course, that the bracken seeds are seemingly invisible because they don’t exist and that ferns, instead, produce spores which are carried off by the wind. In actual fact, the spores are relatively unsuccessful and the bracken has a more powerful means of achieving its course to landscape-scale domination. Beneath the soil, horizontal stems called rhizomes are at work. Rhizomes can spread over 120cm in one year, allowing new shoots and root systems to develop some distance from the original plant. The rhizomes can be at depths of up to 100cm below the surface making bracken a resilient plant and difficult to remove once established.