Ferns in the Redwood Canopy

Emily Burns hangs next to a redwood canopy fern mat, 200 feet above the ground.
Emily Burns hangs next to a redwood crown fern mat, 200 feet above the ground.

In last week’s blog, I described my climb into a large double redwood to help Steve Sillett and his team make measurements for our Redwoods and Climate Change Initiative. While up in this tree, I was suspended alongside enormous fern mats in the canopy. These ferns are called leather fern (Polypodium scoulerii) and they grow as epiphytes, meaning they grow on top of branches or nestled within cavities of a tree.

Canopy researchers find these lush fern mats in old redwoods, trees that have been growing long enough to develop large branches that serve as platforms. Over time leaves and bark fall off the tree and collect on these platforms, breaking down into organic soil for other plants to root in. As ferns grow and multiply, they trap even more soil on redwood branches and a whole food web forms with insects and salamanders.

Light shines on a leather leaf up in the redwood canopy.
Light shines on a leather fern frond up in the redwood canopy.

My own research focuses on redwood forest ferns and now I want to learn more about this sky high ferns: Do they absorb fog water? How do they get into the canopy in the first place? How old does a young redwood need to be before these fern mats establish in the crown? So many questions, I better get to answering them!

Learn more about the League’s research and what we are learning about the incredible redwood forests.

About the author

Emily Burns, the League’s former Director of Science, led the research program that includes the Redwoods and Climate Change Initiative. She holds a PhD in Integrative Biology on the impacts of fog on coast redwood forest flora from the University of California, Berkeley.

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One Response to “Ferns in the Redwood Canopy”

  1. M. D. Vaden

    At Prairie Creek, and maybe elsewhere, there’s a photo of Prof. Sillett in a coast redwood from the “Atlas Project” area. In that photo, some fronds of the fern you wrote about, are as long, and wider than his legs. Much larger than typically seen on above ground burls like along Boy Scout Tree trail and elsewhere where a few are visible above the other Sword Ferns of the forest floor.


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