Plant Profile: Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum, aka Adiantum aleuticum)

Summer is here, and I love our Northwest version of hot weather. As in, where’s my sweater?

We did have some high temperatures a few weeks back, and I hope we get some more before the season’s over. The heat got me thinking about one of the coolest plants I know, the maidenhair fern.

maidenhair fern

Maidenhair fronds resist wetting. Photographer: Ben Legler, all rights reserved.

What follows is a slight expansion on a piece I wrote for WNPS a few years ago that appeared in The Seattle Times (where you can still see it here).

Why it’s choice: Maidenhair fern looks cool — cool like waterfall chutes and deep, dark woods. With shiny black stems that contrast beautifully with the green of its leaves, maidenhair fern looks more delicate than it is. It’s so cool that the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden recently featured it on their swell blog, Botany Photo of the Day.

maidenhair fern

Maidenhair fern. Photographer: Ben Legler, all rights reserved.

Where to see it: Watch for maidenhair fern along forested stream banks, waterfalls, and near seeps from sea level to mid-elevations in the mountains. A search in the database of the Consortium of Pacific Northwest Herbaria shows that, in Washington, it’s been seen primarily in western part of the state and the Cascades, with a few collections from the Blue Mountains.


I know I’ve seen it growing in rocky seeps as I was gasping for breath on the Rattlesnake Ledge trail near North Bend. Also in the rainbows of  waterfall spray at Twin Falls in Olallie State Park. And it was part of the recent Urban Fern Gallery, growing at South Lake Union in Seattle.


What it can do in the garden: Superb for a shady or damp site, maidenhair fern will green up a bed on the north side of a house or fence. Its airy fronds will refresh a dull shady corner under the eaves or fill in a patio planting. Plant it where you can contemplate its cool on a hot afternoon. This fern will help show off more colorful shade lovers, like impatiens or begonias.

The facts: Maidenhair fern has palm-shaped fronds with three to eight fingers each. The fronds stand 1 to 2 feet tall on dark, wiry stems and die back each year. New leaves unfurl each April. While maidenhair fern loves a forest-y, humus-rich soil, it will also grow in heavier soils. After thorough watering for a couple of years, it will thrive in a shady spot with little summer water.

And, hey, where else can you see it? If it’s too hot to hike or garden, look for maidenhair fern in the basket collections of a local museum.

Many Native American basket-makers used the fern’s shiny black stems to decorate their work. Check out the baskets on display at the Burke Museum of Natural History, the Seattle Art Museum, the Northwest Museum of Art and Culture in Spokane, or other museums, and see if you can find it.

Can’t get to a museum? The Burke Museum has an excellent and informative online exhibit:  Entwined with Life: Native American Basketry.


2 thoughts on “Plant Profile: Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum, aka Adiantum aleuticum)

  1. Elaine

    So much great information, I’ll be looking for them this summer! I just heard that Arbutus menziezii photosynthesizes on its trunk/bark, do you know anything about that? I’m intrigued.

  2. Sarah Gage Post author

    Thanks Elaine! Let me know where you see maidenhair fern this summer.

    I’m not surprised to hear that madrona (Arbutus menziesii) bark photosynthesizes– especially since the bark often has that amazing lime-green color in addition to the more familiar red-brown.

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