Is your hen and chickens fern a fake?

Are you growing a hen & chickens fern at home? If so, chances are it’s a fake, unless you dug it out of the bush.

Hen & chickens ferns get their common name from their production of bulbils, or vegetative outgrowths, on the upperside of their fronds. These bulbils are the ‘chickens’ and the fronds are the mother ‘hen’. The bulbils can grow into new individuals, as a clone of their parent.

A bulbil, or ‘chicken', of a hen & chickens fern. These are a vegetative, non-sexual mode of reproduction.

A bulbil, or ‘chicken’, of a hen & chickens fern. These are a vegetative, non-sexual mode of reproduction. Photo by Leon Perrie. (c) Leon Perrie, Wellington.

True hen & chickens fern – Asplenium bulbiferum – is found in the wild only in New Zealand.

Asplenium bulbiferum has closely-set frond segments, and usually many bulbils.

Asplenium bulbiferum has closely-set frond segments, and usually many bulbils. Photo by Leon Perrie. (c) Leon Perrie, Wellington.

In addition to Asplenium bulbiferum, one other hen & chickens fern is native to New Zealand: Asplenium gracillimum. It is also native to Australia. Asplenium gracillimum is an allopolyploid of Asplenium bulbiferum and Asplenium hookerianum, being derived from hybridisation and a doubling of chromosome number.

Caption

Compared to Asplenium bulbiferum, Asplenium gracillimum has more diamond-shaped fronds, more space between its frond segments, and often only a few or even no bulbils. Photo by Leon Perrie. (c) Leon Perrie, Wellington.

Occasional plants of Asplenium gracillimum have very narrow frond segments. These have sometimes been incorrectly called Asplenium bulbiferum variety tripinnatum.

Asplenium gracillimum with narrow frond segments. These resemble the fertile fronds of Asplenium ×lucrosum (see below), but they can be distinguished by all of the fronds having narrow segments, rather than having both broad (when without spore-producing structures) and narrow (when with spore-producing structures) segments. Photo by Leon Perrie. (c) Leon Perrie, Wellington.

Asplenium gracillimum with narrow frond segments. These resemble the fertile fronds of Asplenium ×lucrosum (see below), but they can be distinguished by all of the fronds having narrow segments, rather than having both broad (when without spore-producing structures) and narrow (when with spore-producing structures) segments. Photo by Leon Perrie. (c) Leon Perrie, Wellington.

Most hen & chickens in cultivation are actually sterile hybrid plants properly called Asplenium ×lucrosum, despite usually being mislabelled by plant-sellers as Asplenium bulbiferum. Asplenium ×lucrosum is not native to New Zealand, but is a hybrid that arose in cultivation; its origin is a fascinating story.

Asplenium ×lucrosum and Asplenium bulbiferum are frequently confused, and not only by plant nurseries: most books and websites pertaining to illustrate Asplenium bulbiferum actually feature Asplenium ×lucrosum!

The false hen & chickens fern - Asplenium ×lucrosum - has dimorphic, or two very different looking, fronds on the same individual. The fronds with spore-producing structures have much narrower frond segments than fronds without. This difference in form can even occur within a single frond if it has regions with and without reproductive structures. Asplenium bulbiferum and Asplenium gracillimum do not have dimorphic fronds. Photo by Leon Perrie, Curator. (c) Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

The false hen & chickens fern – Asplenium ×lucrosum – has dimorphic fronds (i.e., two different looking kinds of fronds) on the same individual. The fronds with spore-producing structures have much narrower frond segments than fronds without. This difference in form can even occur within a single frond if it has regions with and without spore-producing structures. Asplenium bulbiferum and Asplenium gracillimum do not have dimorphic fronds. Photo by Leon Perrie, Curator. (c) Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Close relatives of the Asplenium bulbiferum and Asplenium gracillimum hen & chickens ferns are Asplenium hookerianum and the cave spleenwort, Asplenium cimmeriorum.

 The cave spleenwort, Asplenium cimmeriorum, is related to the hen & chickens ferns but doesn't produce bulbils. It is found in limestone areas, including caves, around Waitomo and the north-west of the South Island. Photo by Leon Perrie, Curator. (c) Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

The cave spleenwort, Asplenium cimmeriorum, is related to the hen & chickens ferns but doesn’t produce bulbils. It is found in limestone areas, including caves, around Waitomo and the north-west of the South Island. Photo by Leon Perrie, Curator. (c) Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

16 Responses

  1. Leon Perrie

    Hi Margaret,
    Thanks for the observation.
    Older fronds will eventually collapse to the ground too.
    Leon

    Reply
  2. Margaret

    I have noticed here (SI West Coast) that our H&C fern fronds are often lowered to the ground by ?heavy rain which facilitates direct contact with the soil for the bulbils to grow

    Reply
  3. Kate

    Sorry, I scrolled down too quickly. It seems you have answered my question already.

    Reply
  4. Kate

    When do the “chicken” ferns grow? Does it depend on the season, size or other?

    Reply
  5. Leon

    Hi Melissa,
    I’m not sure how to age a hen and chicken fern other than bigger plants are generally older than smaller plants. They are fairly slow growing, and bad growing conditions will hamper them further.
    [I have heard of people measuring the growth of the rhizome (the "root", which is more of less horizontal in hen & chickens ferns) over a year, and then extrapolating the total age from the total length of the rhizome. That doesn't account for the junior years of the fern. But it has suggested that crown ferns (Blechnum discolor), which are similarly sized to the bigger hen & chickens ferns, can live for several decades.]
    Even small hen & chickens ferns can produce bulbils. But bigger plants obviously produce more bulbils. I suspect bulbil production can be influcened by environmental conditions, but I’m not sure exactly how (perhaps more bulbils in wetter, darker conditions?). Bulbil production, even amongst Asplenium bulbiferum plants (or amongst Asplenium xlucrosum plants), does seem quite variable, and perhaps it has a genetic basis. Of course, A. gracillimum generally produces very few bulbils (usually none, or only a few towards the tip of the frond).
    On a given frond, it takes about a year for bulbils to start to form. The bulbils are only at their best – each with several little fronds – after the mother frond reaches two or three years of age.
    You can spot the positions where bulbils will form even before they start producing little fronds; they first appear as tufts of little black scales on the upper surface of the mother frond.

    Reply
  6. Melissa

    Hi i was wondering how you are able to tell the age of a hen and chicken fern and whether or not the length or age has anything to do with the amount or number of bulbils on each fern.

    Reply
  7. Leon Perrie

    Asplenium haurakiense probably is edible (holds for all of the NZ Asplenium ferns). However, it is usually a fairly small fern, so the pikopiko or unfurling new fronds are going to be quite small, and you’d need a lot of plants to get a decent quantity.
    Hen & chickens fern has the advantage of being quite a big plant, so you can get a decent sized pikopiko from them.
    You could also try shining spleenwort (= huruhuruwhenua or Asplenium oblongifolium). It also grows fairly big, and tolerates dry conditions, so it might do well under the pohutukawa. It’s probably also easier to get hold of than Asplenium haurakiense.

    Reply
  8. Cobra

    Thanks for responding Leon,
    Do you know if the Asplenium haurakiense; also known as Asplenium flaccidum subsp. haurakiense is edible? Still havent found much of a pikopiko pesto recipe…
    Thanks
    Cobra

    Reply
  9. Leon

    Kia Ora Cobra,

    It would be unusual to get hen & chickens fern growing naturally under pohutukawa, unless it was where a forested stream reached the beach. However, a relative – Asplenium haurakiense; also known as Asplenium flaccidum subsp. haurakiense – does occur naturally under pohutukawa, often amongst the roots. Some nurseries do sell it, so you might be able to track it down.

    Sorry, I don’t have a pikopiko pesto recipe. If anyone else does, please let us know.

    Cheers,
    Leon

    Reply
  10. Leon

    Hi Kim,
    Good luck with growing a chicken. From my limited attempts, I’ve found the bigger the chicken plantlets, the more likely they are to survive. Big chickens can have four or five (or more) small fronds.
    Cheers,
    Leon

    Reply
  11. cobra

    Kia Ora,
    Can a hen and chicken fern grow beneath a pohutukawa? ( not much does because of the photukukawa not allowing anything to grow under the branch line.)
    if you do know the answer could you please email me at the address below. Also – If you have a recipe for pikopiko pesto it would be appreciated.
    cheers

    cpxtheobald@yahoo.co.nz

    Reply
  12. Kim

    There is a true Hen and Chicken Fern growing in my fish pond, my father dug it out of Stewart Island Bush roughly 20 years ago, been growing great since! I just plucked of one of the Chickens and stuck it in a jar, hopefully it will grow.

    Reply
  13. Leon Perrie

    Hi Noadi,
    Yes, even quite different plants can be given the same ‘common’ name. And a single kind of plant can be known by many different ‘common’ names, especially if it is a species that occurs in many countries.
    This is why botanists tend to use scientific names (i.e., the latin names) when the communication needs to be precise. At any given point in time, under the international rules for naming species, each species can only have one scientific name and each scientific name can only apply to one species. That is, there should be a one-to-one correspondence.
    Of course, as knowledge changes (improves?), the circumscription/application of a scientific name can change and/or the scientific name of a species be updated.

    Reply
  14. Leon Perrie

    Hi Diana-Grace,
    Aside from the metaphor of the bulbils being chickens and the frond the mother hen, no, I don’t think there is any direct link. HOWEVER, slugs and snails seem to love spleenwort/Asplenium ferns, including the hen & chickens ferns. So, if you manage to establish a good crop of hen & chickens ferns, you might also sustain a reasonable population of pesky molluscs that might in turn keep your chickens happily occupied and fed!

    Reply
  15. Noadi

    Here’s an interesting example of regional difference in names. In the US Hens and Chickens refer to a totally different type of plant, small rosette shaped succulents that send out smaller “babies” around it.

    Reply
  16. Diana-Grace

    does hen and chicken fern have anything to do with Hens and Chickens? I have hens and am wondering if there is any health giving advantages to grow these ferns for my clucky crew! :) Love the images!

    Reply

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