Identify the difference between fern and bracken

People often ask what the difference between fern and bracken is, but don’t know where to find an answer.

A lot of people don’t know the difference between fern and bracken, which can lead to them being planted in the wrong places or killed off by mistake.

We’ve put together a comprehensive guide that explains the differences between fern and bracken in detail. Our guide includes photos of both types of plants, as well as descriptions of their features.

Ultimately, bracken is a fern as well. However, there are subtle differences between them even though a lot of people confuse bracken with bracken fern when compared to fern. For the sake of this article, we will simply refer to them as fern and bracken for clarity.

Fern leaves - difference between fern and bracken
Fern leaves
Fern bracken leaves
Fern bracken leaves

The main difference between a fern and a bracken

The easiest way to tell the difference between a fern and bracken is to just compare the frond. The frond is the feather-like leafy bit that comes out of the stem.

Ferns are bi-pinnate, meaning the leaflets divide twice to generate the distinctive fronds. Bracken, on the other hand, has three layers of leaves. This implies that the leaflets divide three times, resulting in each frond having its own miniature frondlets – similar to a small green comb.

Fern and bracken are so similar that they get confused as the same
Fern and bracken are so similar that they get confused as the same

Key differences between a fern and bracken

Ferns and bracken are both types of plants, but they have some noticeable key differences.

  • Ferns typically have smaller leaves and a more delicate appearance than bracken.
  • Bracken is also much larger than ferns, with broad fronds that can grow up to three feet long.


The stem of the bracken tends to be thinner than that of the fern.

Growing conditions

Another major difference between the two plants is their preferred growing conditions. Ferns prefer moist environments with plenty of shade, while bracken can tolerate drier soil and partial sunlight.

Bracken fern leaves
Bracken fern leaves

Other noticeable differences

  1. Its fronds come up singly, not in tufts or “shuttlecocks” like many other ferns.
  2. It’s 3-pinnate (yes, that certainly does narrow the field down a lot).
  3. Take a mature leaf and look at the underside. That’s where, on most ferns, the spores are.

The spores are the things which, after a complicated life cycle, eventually give rise to baby ferns. They are massed together in clumps or lines, in some species with a membranous lid or flap covering them.

The patterns these form are often distinctive. In the case of Bracken, the spores occur in a continuous line around the edge of each leaf segment, and are covered by a continuous flap formed partly by a very narrow membrane and partly by the edge of the leaflet being rolled over.

If you’re unlucky and get a frond that’s not sporing, the rolled-over edge is still there (as long as the frond isn’t very young).

Fern fronds uncurling - difference between fern and bracken
Fern fronds uncurling

Removal of either the fern or bracken

Bracken also spreads quickly by rhizomes, while ferns reproduce by spores. -So if you’re looking for a lush green plant to add some colour to your shady garden spot, go for a fern. But if you need something to help reduce erosion on a hillside, you can’t go wrong with bracken.

If you feel like there are too many ferns in your garden or that they’re overtaking the other plants, try pulling some out by hand. Brackens spread quickly and can take over a garden, but ferns usually do not spread as rapidly.

In order to get rid of bracken ferns use Glyphosate which is a non-selective herbicide (otherwise known as a total herbicide) that will kill nearly all green vascular plants that it comes into contact with. Therefore care should be taken that the weed wipe is set at an appropriate height to come into contact with only the Bracken.

Want to know more about the difference between fern and bracken?

Knotweed Removal aims to provide the most up-to-date information, help and advice for YOU to make informed decisions. If you are unsure or uncertain about how to proceed, please reach out to us and we will gladly come back and advise you as best we can.

Governmental advice can be found here and the UK law covering the removal of Japanese Knotweed as stated under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 can be found here.

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