The cryptic, but unique whisk fern

an image of a green stick-like fern with yellow bulbs covering it
A whisk fern with spore bearing structures

The hurricane blew a lot of leaves away from shrubs revealing hidden gems normally nestled out of sight.  One of these oddities that has caught my eye is called the whisk fern.  This unusual native fern is also called the skeleton fork fern noting its boney, leafless stems. Often found in the nooks and crannies of garden beds, the whisk fern may be overlooked in your own landscape or mistaken for a random weed. What is the whisk fern and what does it look like?

At a glance, the whisk fern looks almost like a type of seaweed, lime-green to yellowish green in color, with small yellow, spore-producing structures on the end of starkly naked stems. The whisk fern has no roots and no leaves and is about one-foot tall in size. The green, Y-shaped stems contain chlorophyll and do photosynthesize. Instead of roots, the whisk fern has rhizomes which hold onto the soil or whatever substrate is available. Although leafless, you will see tiny leaf-like projections along the stem called enations. Just above these projections, the green to yellow round spore-bearing structures can be found. The spores are released and eventually develop into independent plants.

Native in the southern United States. the Caribbean, and other sub-tropical/tropical areas around the world, whisk ferns are found in natural areas as well as in landscapes. They tend to like bright, indirect light as might be found in the dappled shade at the base of shrubs. I have commonly seen them in parking lot planting beds tucked in, and almost out of sight, amongst various shrubs. Although they appear weedy, there is no need to remove them if they are in close proximity to landscape plants. You may also find whisk ferns on trees or palms where they thrive as harmless epiphytic plants.

Whisk ferns do like moisture, so if they pop up in your landscape, you may be over-watering your other plants.

Interestingly enough, the Japanese have cultivated the whisk fern for some time and now have established over one-hundred ornamental cultivars. If you like the whisk fern, you can propagate your own by simply dividing clumps, or attempt the more difficult effort of germinating the spores.  It can take up to a year to germinate these spores!

Consider whisk ferns a botanical oddity that may turn up in your landscape. Don’t treat them like a weed, but instead pause and ponder the wonder of a leafless, rootless plant! For more information on all types of natural and ornamental plant oddities, you can also call the Master Gardener Volunteer Helpdesk on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 to 4 pm at 764-4340 for gardening help and insight into their role as an Extension volunteer.  Ralph E. Mitchell is the Director/Horticulture Agent for UF/IFAS Extension – Charlotte County. He can be reached at 941-764-4344 or  Connect with us on social media. Like us on Facebook @CharlotteCountyExtension and follow us on Instagram @ifascharco.

Lemke, C. (2012) Plant-of-the –Week – Psilotum nudum – Whisk Fern University of Oklahoma Department of Microbiology & Plant Biology.  University of Oklahoma.
Introduction to the Psilotales – the Whisk Ferns (2022). University of California, Berkley.
Bailey, C. C. (2016) Whisk ferns are harmless, leafless plants.
Snyder, S. L. (2022) Psilophytes (Whisk Fern) in the Christopher B. Smith Preserve.  Conservancy of Southwest Florida – Gopher Tortoise Preserve.
Garner, L. (2008) Unusual and Bizarre Plants – The Whisk Ferns.  Dave’s Garden .com
Psilotum nudum (2022) .E0001.393401.537.52.0017


ralph mitchell
Posted: December 8, 2022

Category: Florida-Friendly Landscaping, Home Landscapes
Tags: Bizarre Plant, Native Fern, Skeleton Fork Fern, Unusual, Whisk Fern

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