Invasive Species Compendium

Detailed coverage of invasive species threatening livelihoods and the environment worldwide


Pteridium aquilinum



Pteridium aquilinum (bracken)


  • Last modified
  • 16 November 2018
  • Datasheet Type(s)
  • Invasive Species
  • Pest
  • Host Plant
  • Preferred Scientific Name
  • Pteridium aquilinum
  • Preferred Common Name
  • bracken
  • Taxonomic Tree
  • Domain: Eukaryota
  •   Kingdom: Plantae
  •     Phylum: Pteridophyta
  •       Class: Pteridopsida
  •         Family: Dennstaedtiaceae
  • Summary of Invasiveness
  • P. aquilinum is a cosmopolitan weed that readily spreads into pasture and marginal areas and is favoured by fire and soil acidity. Its presence reduces land productivity and adversely affects biodiversity. The plant is little affected by animals beca...

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Underside of frond with sporangia.
TitleFrond with sporangia
CaptionUnderside of frond with sporangia.
Copyright©Chris Parker/Bristol, UK
Underside of frond with sporangia.
Frond with sporangiaUnderside of frond with sporangia.©Chris Parker/Bristol, UK
Frond of P. aquilinum in early autumn. The frond usually turns yellow before becoming dark reddish-brown.
CaptionFrond of P. aquilinum in early autumn. The frond usually turns yellow before becoming dark reddish-brown.
CopyrightHugh Wright
Frond of P. aquilinum in early autumn. The frond usually turns yellow before becoming dark reddish-brown.
FrondsFrond of P. aquilinum in early autumn. The frond usually turns yellow before becoming dark reddish-brown.Hugh Wright
During the growing season the fronds are dark green and may reach a height of up to 2 m.
CaptionDuring the growing season the fronds are dark green and may reach a height of up to 2 m.
Copyright©Pierre Binggeli
During the growing season the fronds are dark green and may reach a height of up to 2 m.
FrondsDuring the growing season the fronds are dark green and may reach a height of up to 2 m.©Pierre Binggeli
In marginal grazing land bracken produces monotypic clumps. In extreme cases it may dominate all the ground vegetation.
CaptionIn marginal grazing land bracken produces monotypic clumps. In extreme cases it may dominate all the ground vegetation.
Copyright©Pierre Binggeli
In marginal grazing land bracken produces monotypic clumps. In extreme cases it may dominate all the ground vegetation.
HabitIn marginal grazing land bracken produces monotypic clumps. In extreme cases it may dominate all the ground vegetation.©Pierre Binggeli
Bracken takes months to break up during the dormant season when the fronds have dried. Under some climatic conditions it becomes a fire hazard.
CaptionBracken takes months to break up during the dormant season when the fronds have dried. Under some climatic conditions it becomes a fire hazard.
Copyright©Pierre Binggeli
Bracken takes months to break up during the dormant season when the fronds have dried. Under some climatic conditions it becomes a fire hazard.
HabitBracken takes months to break up during the dormant season when the fronds have dried. Under some climatic conditions it becomes a fire hazard.©Pierre Binggeli
Monotypic clumps in winter, growing up to the shoreline.
CaptionMonotypic clumps in winter, growing up to the shoreline.
Copyright©Pierre Binggeli
Monotypic clumps in winter, growing up to the shoreline.
HabitMonotypic clumps in winter, growing up to the shoreline.©Pierre Binggeli
Bracken covering marginal land in Ireland. Under oceanic conditions, areas of bracken are readily seen in winter when the fronds turn dark reddish-brown.
CaptionBracken covering marginal land in Ireland. Under oceanic conditions, areas of bracken are readily seen in winter when the fronds turn dark reddish-brown.
Copyright©Pierre Binggeli
Bracken covering marginal land in Ireland. Under oceanic conditions, areas of bracken are readily seen in winter when the fronds turn dark reddish-brown.
HabitBracken covering marginal land in Ireland. Under oceanic conditions, areas of bracken are readily seen in winter when the fronds turn dark reddish-brown.©Pierre Binggeli


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Preferred Scientific Name

  • Pteridium aquilinum (L.) Kuhn

Preferred Common Name

  • bracken

Other Scientific Names

  • Pteridium esculentum (Forst.) Nakai
  • Pteridium revolutum (Bl.) Nakai
  • Pteris aquilina L.

International Common Names

  • English: bracken fern
  • Spanish: felguera; helecho comun; helecho hembra; palma (Mexico); pecho de caballo; petalillo
  • French: fougère
  • Portuguese: feto-ordinario

Local Common Names

  • Belgium: adelaarsvaren
  • Brazil: feio; feto; pluma grande; samambaia
  • Canada: American bracken; American brake; brake; eastern bracken; fouère à l'aigle; fougère d'aigle; fougère impériale; fougère-aigle commune; fougère-aigle de l'est; fougère-aigle de l'ouest; fougère-paille; grande fougère; grande fougère de l'ouest; hog brake; pasture brake; polypode à feuilles recourbée; ptéride aigle; ptéride aigle-impériale; ptéridie aigle-impériale; ptéridie d'aigle; ptéridie latiuscule; ptéridium à ailes d'aigles; pteridium aquilin; ptéridium des aigles; ptéridium large; ptéris aigle-impériale; western bracken
  • Denmark: ornebregne
  • El Salvador: crespillo
  • Fiji: mata; qato; qato cuva; quato
  • Finland: sananjalka
  • Germany: Farnkraut
  • Guinea: gbologola; gbowolowoulou; kossé; koumto; sankan
  • Indonesia: pakis jemblung
  • Italy: felse aquilina
  • Japan: warabi
  • Korea, Republic of: kosari
  • Madagascar: apanga
  • Netherlands: adelaarsvaren, gewoone
  • Norway: einstape
  • Philippines: pakong buwaya
  • Puerto Rico: felpa
  • South Africa: adelaarsvaring; brake; eagle fern; hog-pasture brake; hombewe; muvanguluvha; pasture brake; ukozani
  • Sweden: oernbraeken, vanlig
  • Thailand: kut kin
  • USA: eastern brakenfern; southern bracken; tailed bracken; western brackenfern
  • Zambia: luputu

EPPO code

  • PTEAQ (Pteridium aquilinum)
  • PTERE (Pteridium revolutum)

Summary of Invasiveness

Top of page P. aquilinum is a cosmopolitan weed that readily spreads into pasture and marginal areas and is favoured by fire and soil acidity. Its presence reduces land productivity and adversely affects biodiversity. The plant is little affected by animals because of its toxicity. P. aquilinum is difficult to control particularly because of its ability to sprout from an extensive network of underground rhizomes and has large reserves of carbohydrate.

Taxonomic Tree

Top of page
  • Domain: Eukaryota
  •     Kingdom: Plantae
  •         Phylum: Pteridophyta
  •             Class: Pteridopsida
  •                 Family: Dennstaedtiaceae
  •                     Genus: Pteridium
  •                         Species: Pteridium aquilinum

Notes on Taxonomy and Nomenclature

Top of page The genus Pteridium (Dennstaedtiaceae) comprises a few relatively stable morphotypes which are at least partially interfertile. Tryon (1941) recognized a single species with two sub-species, containing 12 varieties, and this scheme has been used throughout the world until recent taxonomic advances have made by using both morphometric analysis and DNA fingerprinting. Thomson (2000) reported that morphometric comparisons of frond material grown under standard environmental conditions and DNA fingerprinting by arbitrarily primed PCR were used to assess taxonomic groupings and relationships in the cosmopolitan bracken ferns of 11 of these varieties, excluding var. feei from Central America. This work resolved groupings corresponding to the varieties, var. africanum, var. arachnoideum, var. esculentum, var. latiusculum and var. revolutum from each other. The molecular analysis carried out by Thomson (2000) appeared to elucidate the genetic relationships and some origins of the various varieties studied, concluding that these results were consistent with those from the morphometric analysis, and that the varieties might best be raised in rank to species level. However, apart from some work in Australia in particular, the literature does not reflect the changes suggested by Thomson (2000), and indeed in many instances, such as for publications relating to Africa, the plant is simply referred to as P. aquilinum. Correspondingly, this datasheet employs the all-embracing P. aquilinum concept.


Top of page P. aquilinum is a polycarpic geophyte; a perennial fern which reproduces by spores and widely creeping, branching underground stems, sometimes forming colonies. The fronds arise directly from a deep underground rhizome that is much subdivided. The large compound leaves (fronds) are 0.3-1.3 m high, and 15-45 cm long, whereas both fertile and sterile fronds may reach a height of up to 2 m in the UK and can be much smaller under sub-optimal conditions. The leaf stalk, usually mistaken for the stem, actually is attached to the rhizome under the ground. The triangular deciduous leaves turn brown and die after the first autumn frosts in temperate climates, and the new ones arise each spring from the rhizomes. The leaf is divided into numerous segments (leaflets), each of which may be again divided or redivided, with the lowest segments three times compound. The clusters of spore cases densely line the inrolled edges of the underside of the leaves. The sporangium is aggregated into sori on the underside of the frond. Young fronds produce extrafloral nectaries (Grime et al., 1988; Duc et al., 2003).

Plant Type

Top of page Herbaceous
Vegetatively propagated


Top of page

This group of closely related subspecies probably has the largest world distribution of any plant taxa, occurring in much of the temperate and tropical regions on all continents as well as mainly oceanic islands. The extent of the native range is very broad in the general literature and countries in its native range are listed for Africa, Asia, Europe and North America in USDA-ARS (2003). There are very few reports of P. aquilinum as an introduced species. It can become extremely widespread and cover large parts of the landscape, for example, 8% of the area of Scotland, UK. However, there is much regional variation in the recognized types of cover (continuous versus discontinuous) (Birnie et al., 2000). Whether the species is weedy or invasive in each of the countries when known to occur is debatable, and as such has been left as 'unknown' in the Distribution table. It may, however, be considered invasive in at least some of these countries by using any of the definitions, and as such is classified as an invasive species in the Risk and Impacts table.

Distribution Table

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The distribution in this summary table is based on all the information available. When several references are cited, they may give conflicting information on the status. Further details may be available for individual references in the Distribution Table Details section which can be selected by going to Generate Report.

Continent/Country/RegionDistributionLast ReportedOriginFirst ReportedInvasiveReferenceNotes


AfghanistanPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979
BhutanPresentNativeParker, 1992
ChinaWidespreadNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-AnhuiPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-FujianPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-GansuPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-GuangdongPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-GuangxiPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-GuizhouPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-HainanPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-HebeiPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-HeilongjiangPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-HenanPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-Hong KongPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-HubeiPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-HunanPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-JiangsuPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-JiangxiPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-JilinPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-LiaoningPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-MacauPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-Nei MengguPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-NingxiaPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-QinghaiPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-ShaanxiPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-ShandongPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-ShanghaiPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-ShanxiPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-SichuanPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-XinjiangPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-YunnanPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
-ZhejiangPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
IndiaWidespreadNativeHolm et al., 1979
IndonesiaPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979
IranPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979
IraqPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979
IsraelPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979
JapanWidespreadNativeGuo et al., 2003
Korea, DPRPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2003
Korea, Republic ofPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2003
PakistanPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979
PhilippinesWidespreadNativeKowal, 1966
Sri LankaPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979
TaiwanPresentNativeFlora of China Editorial Committee, 2003
ThailandPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979
TurkeyPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979
VietnamPresentNativeMissouri Botanical Garden, 2003


BurundiRestricted distributionNativeHemp, 2002
CameroonPresentNativeYouta-Happi, 1998
Congo Democratic RepublicPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979
Equatorial GuineaPresentNativeAdams, 1957
EthiopiaPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979
GabonPresentNativeMissouri Botanical Garden, 2003
GhanaPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979
GuineaPresentNativeCarrière, 2000
KenyaRestricted distributionNativeHemp, 2002
MadagascarPresentNativeBloesch et al., 2002
MalawiWidespreadNativeLemon, 1968
MauritiusPresentNativeVaughan and Wiehe, 1937
RwandaRestricted distributionNativeHemp, 2002
Sao Tome and PrincipePresentNativeAdams, 1957
Sierra LeonePresentNativeMissouri Botanical Garden, 2003
South AfricaWidespreadNativeBromilow, 1995
-Canary IslandsWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
SudanRestricted distributionNativeJackson, 1956
TanzaniaRestricted distributionNativeHemp, 2000
UgandaPresentNativeSekercioglu, 2002
ZambiaPresentNativeLawton, 1978
ZimbabwePresentNativeHolm et al., 1979

North America

BermudaPresentNativeThomson and Alonso-Amelot, 2002
CanadaPresentPresent based on regional distribution.
-AlbertaPresentNativeDarbyshire, 2003
-British ColumbiaPresentNativeDarbyshire, 2003
-ManitobaPresentNativeDarbyshire, 2003
-New BrunswickPresentNativeDarbyshire, 2003
-Newfoundland and LabradorPresentNativeDarbyshire, 2003
-Nova ScotiaPresentNativeDarbyshire, 2003
-OntarioPresentNativeDarbyshire, 2003
-Prince Edward IslandPresentNativeDarbyshire, 2003
-QuebecPresentNativeDarbyshire, 2003
MexicoPresentNativeCrane, 1990
Saint Pierre and MiquelonPresentNativeDarbyshire, 2003
USAPresentPresent based on regional distribution.
-AlabamaPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-AlaskaPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-ArizonaPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-ArkansasPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-CaliforniaPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-ColoradoPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-ConnecticutPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-DelawarePresentNativeCrane, 1990
-FloridaPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-GeorgiaPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-HawaiiPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-IdahoPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-IllinoisPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-IndianaPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-IowaPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-KansasPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-KentuckyPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-LouisianaPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-MainePresentNativeCrane, 1990
-MarylandPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-MassachusettsPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-MichiganPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-MinnesotaPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-MississippiPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-MissouriPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-MontanaPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-NebraskaPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-NevadaPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-New HampshirePresentNativeCrane, 1990
-New JerseyPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-New MexicoPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-New YorkPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-North CarolinaPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-North DakotaPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-OhioPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-OklahomaPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-OregonPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-PennsylvaniaPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-Rhode IslandPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-South CarolinaPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-South DakotaPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-TennesseePresentNativeCrane, 1990
-TexasPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-UtahPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-VermontPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-VirginiaPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-WashingtonPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-West VirginiaPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-WisconsinPresentNativeCrane, 1990
-WyomingPresentNativeCrane, 1990

Central America and Caribbean

BahamasPresentIntroduced Invasive Kairo et al., 2003
BelizePresentNativeMissouri Botanical Garden, 2003
Costa RicaPresentNativeThomson and Alonso-Amelot, 2002
CubaRestricted distributionNativeSeifriz, 1943
El SalvadorPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979
GuatemalaPresentNativeThomson and Alonso-Amelot, 2002
HondurasPresentNativeThomson and Alonso-Amelot, 2002
JamaicaPresentIntroduced Invasive Kairo et al., 2003
NicaraguaPresentNativeMissouri Botanical Garden, 2003
PanamaPresentNativeMissouri Botanical Garden, 2003
Puerto RicoPresentNativeMissouri Botanical Garden, 2003
Trinidad and TobagoPresentNativeBeard, 1953

South America

ArgentinaPresentNativeThomson and Alonso-Amelot, 2002
BoliviaPresentNativeThomson and Alonso-Amelot, 2002
BrazilWidespreadNativeLorenzi, 1982
-AcrePresentNativeLorenzi, 1982
-AlagoasPresentNativeLorenzi, 1982
-AmapaPresentNativeLorenzi, 1982
-AmazonasPresentNativeLorenzi, 1982
-BahiaPresentNativeLorenzi, 1982
-CearaPresentNativeLorenzi, 1982
-Espirito SantoPresentNativeLorenzi, 1982
-Fernando de NoronhaPresentNativeLorenzi, 1982
-GoiasPresentNativeLorenzi, 1982
-MaranhaoPresentNativeLorenzi, 1982
-Mato GrossoPresentNativeLorenzi, 1982
-Minas GeraisPresentNativeLorenzi, 1982
-ParaPresentNativeLorenzi, 1982
-ParaibaPresentNativeLorenzi, 1982
-ParanaPresentNativeLorenzi, 1982
-PernambucoPresentNativeLorenzi, 1982
-PiauiPresentNativeLorenzi, 1982
-Rio de JaneiroPresentNativeLorenzi, 1982
-Rio Grande do NortePresentNativeLorenzi, 1982
-Rio Grande do SulPresentNativeLorenzi, 1982
-RondoniaPresentNativeLorenzi, 1982
-Santa CatarinaPresentNativeLorenzi, 1982
-Sao PauloPresentNativeLorenzi, 1982
-SergipePresentNativeLorenzi, 1982
-TocantinsPresentNativeLorenzi, 1982
ColombiaPresentNativeThomson and Alonso-Amelot, 2002
EcuadorPresentNativeThomson and Alonso-Amelot, 2002
French GuianaPresentNativeThomson and Alonso-Amelot, 2002
GuyanaPresentNativeThomson and Alonso-Amelot, 2002
ParaguayPresentNativeThomson and Alonso-Amelot, 2002
PeruPresentNativeThomson and Alonso-Amelot, 2002
SurinamePresentNativeThomson and Alonso-Amelot, 2002
UruguayPresentNativeThomson and Alonso-Amelot, 2002
VenezuelaPresentNativeThomson and Alonso-Amelot, 2002


AlbaniaWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
AndorraWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
AustriaWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
BelarusWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
BelgiumWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
Bosnia-HercegovinaWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
BulgariaWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
CroatiaWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
CyprusWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
Czech RepublicWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
DenmarkWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
EstoniaWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
FinlandWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
FranceWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
-CorsicaWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
GermanyWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
GibraltarWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
GreeceWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
HungaryWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
IrelandWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
ItalyWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
LatviaWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
LiechtensteinWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
LithuaniaWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
LuxembourgWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
MacedoniaWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
MaltaWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
MoldovaWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
MonacoWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
NetherlandsWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
NorwayWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
PolandWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
PortugalWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
-AzoresWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
-MadeiraWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
RomaniaWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
Russian FederationPresentPresent based on regional distribution.
-Central RussiaWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
-Eastern SiberiaWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
-Northern RussiaWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
-Russian Far EastWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
-Southern RussiaWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
-Western SiberiaWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
San MarinoWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
SerbiaWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
SlovakiaWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
SloveniaWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
SpainWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
-Balearic IslandsWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
SwedenWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
SwitzerlandWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
UKWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
-Channel IslandsWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
UkraineWidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964
Yugoslavia (former)WidespreadNativeTutin and et al, 1964


AustraliaPresentPresent based on regional distribution.
-TasmaniaWidespreadNativeAnon., 2003
FijiPresentNativeParham, 1958
New ZealandWidespreadNativeHolm et al., 1979
Norfolk IslandRestricted distributionNativeBraggins, 1996

History of Introduction and Spread

Top of page Little is known about the potential dispersal of the species but it is unlikely to have been intentionally moved by humans and if it has it would have been restricted to a few regions of the world. It is likely that some movement of the plant (rhizome) has happened via movement of soil. The only report of the species being exotic is from Jamaica and the Bahamas, and it would appear that it is only invasive in the former location (Kairo et al., 2003).

Risk of Introduction

Top of page P. aquilinum is cosmopolitan in its distribution and there appears to be only a limited risk of further introduction.


Top of page Species of the genus Pteridium are seriously weedy in marginal land in many parts of the world, such as in the UK where P. aquilinum is particularly a problem in the uplands. In North America, Pteridium spp. occur readily in dry to wet forest margins and openings, peatbogs, logged areas and dry meadows from coastal to sub-alpine zones (Douglas et al., 1991). In the UK, it affects not only rough grasslands but also significantly impacts heather moorland (Birnie et al., 2000) but is also found in woodlands, wastelands, riverbanks and cliffs (Grime et al., 1988). In central Cameroon it is commonly found at the forest savanna boundary and is often associated with the invasive Chromolaena odorata (Youta-Happi, 1998). In much of the tropics, Pteridium spp. is common in some mountain areas and will become more dominant where fire occurs (D'Antonio et al., 2000; Wesche et al., 2000). P. aquilinum is found in a variety of sites in sun to partial shade and on soils that range from deep and rich to hard-packed or sandy. It is one of the first plants to colonize logged or cleared areas though it seldom persists in cultivated areas.

Habitat List

Top of page
Terrestrial – ManagedCultivated / agricultural land Present, no further details Harmful (pest or invasive)
Managed forests, plantations and orchards Present, no further details Harmful (pest or invasive)
Managed grasslands (grazing systems) Present, no further details Harmful (pest or invasive)
Disturbed areas Present, no further details Harmful (pest or invasive)
Rail / roadsides Present, no further details
Terrestrial ‑ Natural / Semi-naturalNatural forests Present, no further details Harmful (pest or invasive)
Natural grasslands Present, no further details Harmful (pest or invasive)
Coastal areas Present, no further details

Hosts/Species Affected

Top of page P. aquilinum affect grasslands, forestry plantations, and some cultivated areas.

Biology and Ecology

Top of page Genetics

The chromosome number of P. aquilinum var. aquilinum is 2n=104 with a nuclear DNA amount of 12.8 pg (Grime et al., 1988). In his taxonomic re-assessment of the genus Thomson (2000) concluded that the DNA evidence suggested that morphotypes in Pteridium were "determined by specific qualitative and quantitative combinations of a limited number of highly conserved, additively assorted, genomic elements". It exhibits polymorphism for cyanogenesis (Grime et al., 1988). Morphological and morphometric analysis by Thomson (2000) elucidated some genetic relationships between varieties, including the distinguishing of an additional grouping of Atlantic Island (Azores, Madeira) and European brackens as an 'aquilinum complex' including var. aquilinum and a number of morphotypes recognised by C.N. Page and others at various taxonomic levels (near atlanticum, fulvum, pinetorum, osmundaceum). Also, he confirmed that var. yarrabense was a tetraploid hybrid (2n=208) of var. esculentum and var. revolutum, that at least those accessions of var. caudatum examined were tetraploid hybrids (2n=208) involving var. arachnoideum as one progenitor, and that the closest relatives of var. decompositum were var. latiusculum and var. revolutum; and provided evidence of close genomic relationships between var. latiusculum, var. pseudocaudatum and var. pubescens in North America. Thomson (2000) suggested that Tryon's varieties africanum, aquilinum, arachnoideum, decompositum, esculentum, latiusculum and revolutum might best be treated as species; pseudocaudatum and pubescens as varieties within latiusculum; yarrabense and caudatum (at least in part) as hybrids. Thomson and Alonso-Amelot (2002) have dealt with the taxonomic status and relationships of Pteridium caudatum in Central and South America. However, this datasheet does not separate the species as described by Thomson (2000) and covers all varieties within the over-arching P. aquilinum.

Physiology and Phenology

In temperate climates, fronds emerge from late spring onwards and persist until the autumn. Spores ripen in August to September and are shed in August to October in the UK. Under experimental conditions half of the spores take 4 days to germinate and germination is to some extent inhibited by darkness, and the prothallus will grow better in unshaded habitats (Grime et al., 1988). In Western Europe the shoots are copper brown during the dormant season and the fronds will be still standing for much of the winter and only gradually break up. The fronds will grow after the winter season whereas in tropical regions this will tend to occur after fires. Wynn et al. (2000) demonstrated significant differences in response to light and temperature regimes between four genotypes grown under experimental conditions. There is much variation in both the total dry mass per unit area (1.8-5.1 kg/m²) and the total rhizome dry mass (0.24-0.42 kg/m²).

Pteridium spp. are to a large extent fire-resistant as the rhizomes send up new shoots after the old ones are burnt. In tropical regions the species is often referred to as a typical postfire successional species (Wesche et al., 2000) and after fire may form so-called 'bracken savannas' (Beard, 1953). However, in Sudan, it is absent from the most fiercely burnt hillsides (Jackson, 1956). In Hawaii, where it is uncommon, it is one of the few seasonal sub-montane native species to increase in burned compared to unburned areas (D'Antonio et al., 2000). Similarly, in much of the temperate zones it is known to be fire-responsive (Cwynar, 1987; Skre et al., 1998). Indigenous peoples such as the Maoris in New Zealand would appear to have been responsible for the increase of the fern through their use of fire (Germann and Holland, 2001).

Reproductive Biology

Up to 30 million spores may be produced by a single frond and spore production tends to be greater in open habitats. Spores are wind-dispersed. Viable spores are often found in abundance within a soil profile, and a buried spore bank is suspected. Spores may remain viable for up to 10 years. Natural regeneration from spores may occur in spring and is mainly restricted to areas of disturbed or burnt ground. Expansion of established clones will be chiefly vegetative (Grime et al., 1988).

Environmental Requirements

Pteridium spp. are commonly found at varying altitudes. In the UK, P. aquilinum is found from sea level to 590 m but is more abundant in the uplands (Grime et al., 1988). In the Imatong Mountains of Sudan its altitudinal range is 1800-2600 m (Jackson, 1956) and up to 3200 m in Colombia (Missouri Botanical Garden, 2003). It prefers acid soil, tolerating soil pH of 3.0-7.6. However, in the UK, it is most frequent and abundant below pH 4.5 and particularly on deep soils. It is found on a range of shaded and unshaded habitats but grows best on productive brown-earths and more open habitats. Young shoots are very sensitive to frost and trampling by large mammals (Grime et al., 1988).


The roots bear vesicular-arbuscular mycorrhiza (Grime et al., 1988). The extrafloral nectaries of young fronds provide food for ants and these may rid the plant of insect predators (Tempel, 1983; Grime et al., 1988). In Western Europe herbivory by large mammals such as deer, results in a reduction in many palatable species and with the expansion of P. aquilinum (Lameire et al., 2000; Kirby, 2001). In the UK, vegetational change from arable land to woodland over 100 years resulted in the unexpectedly disappearance of P. aquilinum once the woodland had become established (Harmer et al., 2001). Often there is little vegetation under the canopy of P. aquilinum, just a carpet of its litter. The plant is also considered to be allelopathic (Grime et al., 1988).

Latitude/Altitude Ranges

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Latitude North (°N)Latitude South (°S)Altitude Lower (m)Altitude Upper (m)
0 3200

Air Temperature

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Parameter Lower limit Upper limit
Mean annual temperature (ºC) 9 29


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ParameterLower limitUpper limitDescription
Dry season duration06number of consecutive months with <40 mm rainfall

Rainfall Regime

Top of page Bimodal

Soil Tolerances

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Soil drainage

  • free
  • impeded

Soil reaction

  • acid
  • neutral
  • very acid

Soil texture

  • heavy
  • light
  • medium

Special soil tolerances

  • infertile
  • shallow

Natural enemies

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Natural enemyTypeLife stagesSpecificityReferencesBiological control inBiological control on
Aneugmenus padi Herbivore Leaves
Ascochyta aquilina Pathogen
Ascochyta necans Pathogen
Chirosia histricina Herbivore Leaves
Conservula cinisigna Herbivore Leaves
Dasineura filicina Herbivore Leaves
Ditropis pteridis Herbivore Leaves
Eupteryx maigudoi Herbivore Leaves
Panotima angularis Herbivore Leaves
Phoma aquilina Pathogen
Septoria aquilina Pathogen
Strongylogaster lineata Herbivore

Notes on Natural Enemies

Top of page Although P. aquilinum is considered to be heavily defended from mammalian and insect predators (Grime et al., 1988), many insects have been recorded on the plant (Crane, 1990) though their effects on growth and survival are not known. A number of insects attacking P. aquilinum were identified from the UK (Lawton, 1976) New Mexico, USA (Lawton, 1982) and Brazil (Martins et al., 1995), some of which were investigated as potential biological control agents. Lawson (1976) lists 40 species of arthropods feeding on P. aquilinum in the UK and notes seasonal changes in relation to the plant's defense mechanisms against herbivory.

Means of Movement and Dispersal

Top of page Spores are principally wind-dispersed. There is no known natural dispersal of spores. Soil containing live rhizomes either attached to agricultural machinery or disposed of in landfill sites are possible means of introduction to new areas though no instances have been documented. Intentional introduction is a most unlikely pathway in view of the limited uses and no positive traits of this species.

Impact Summary

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Animal/plant collections None
Animal/plant products None
Biodiversity (generally) Negative
Crop production Negative
Environment (generally) None
Fisheries / aquaculture None
Forestry production Negative
Human health None
Livestock production Negative
Native fauna None
Native flora None
Rare/protected species Negative
Tourism None
Trade/international relations None
Transport/travel None


Top of page When mature and tough, fronds of P. aquilinum are poisonous to horses and cattle. The rhizomes are five times more toxic than the leaves, but are seldom eaten. Sheep have been poisoned experimentally, but natural poisoning is not common. The poison is cumulative over about 1 month for horses and 1-4 months for cattle before symptoms appear. Horses are usually poisoned by eating large amounts of contaminated hay, containing over 20% P. aquilinum, whereas cattle are poisoned by consuming an amount of green or dried leaves approximately equal to the animal's weight. In the UK, it is a weed of grasslands and forestry and is increasing in the uplands and is difficult to eradicate (Grime et al., 1988). It affects farmers in many parts of the world, with lost opportunity costs associated with the invasion of productive grazing land, veterinary costs associated with poisoning and tumours, ticks and associated disease problems and direct bracken control costs. In forestry plantations, control is often required during the establishment phase (Pakeman et al., 2003).

Environmental Impact

Top of page In terms of conservation, P. aquilinum often has little biodiversity interest and in Britain it has generally replaced habitats of greater importance (Pakeman et al., 2003).

Impact: Biodiversity

Top of page In Europe there is some evidence that a decrease in species richness over time may be due to competitive exclusion by P. aquilinum (Lameire et al., 2000).

Social Impact

Top of page The plant is toxic to livestock and humans (Grime et al., 1988; Crane, 1990). The impact on human health is difficult to quantify, but Pakeman et al. (2003) consider that it could be locally important. There is unproven speculation that drinking water taken from catchments that are predominantly covered with P. aquilinum may contain carcinogens or other toxins that are harmful to human health.

Risk and Impact Factors

Top of page Invasiveness
  • Invasive in its native range
  • Proved invasive outside its native range
  • Highly adaptable to different environments
  • Tolerates, or benefits from, cultivation, browsing pressure, mutilation, fire etc
  • Has high reproductive potential
  • Has propagules that can remain viable for more than one year
Impact outcomes
  • Damaged ecosystem services
  • Ecosystem change/ habitat alteration
  • Negatively impacts agriculture
  • Negatively impacts human health
  • Negatively impacts animal health
  • Negatively impacts tourism
  • Reduced amenity values
  • Reduced native biodiversity
Impact mechanisms
  • Competition - monopolizing resources
Likelihood of entry/control
  • Difficult/costly to control


Top of page In New Zealand, the Maori ate the starchy, below-ground parts of the fern and used fire as an aid for hunting and to promote regrowth of this edible resource (Germann and Holland, 2001). Faust (2002) has reviewed the ethnobotany of the species in the Yucatan Peninsula. In early spring, the young unrolled leaves and tender leaf stalks may also be cooked as a vegetable, and are consumed in Thailand and Japan, even though they contain carcinogens (USDA-ARS, 2003). In the UK, it used to have some economic importance as a source of fuel, thatch, bedding, compost, food and potash (Grime et al., 1988). It is occasionally used for sheep bedding in Wales to this day, though in small amounts to avoid poisoning of stock from consumption, due to beliefs concerning its possible ethnoveterinary effects. Potential uses of P. aquilinum in organic agriculture in the UK are being considered (Donnelly et al., 2002) and it is being promoted as a component of peat-free growing media (Pitman and Webber, 1998). There are numerous uses in folkloric medicine (USDA-ARS, 2003).

Uses List

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Human food and beverage

  • Flour/starch
  • Vegetable


  • Poisonous to mammals

Medicinal, pharmaceutical

  • Traditional/folklore

Similarities to Other Species/Conditions

Top of page Whereas the genus Pteridium is readily distinguished from other fern taxa, separation of the various species/subspecies within the genus is difficult (Thomson, 2000).

Prevention and Control

Top of page Cultural Control

The plant is susceptible to damage by the trampling of fronds by large mammals, but this does little to control the plant. Frequent liming (to increase soil pH) and fertilizer applications used in upland grassland improvement also have the additional benefit of reducing infestations of P. aquilinum, as it is a plant of infertile acid soils. Reseeding with preferable forage grasses or herbaceous species also appears to reduce the cover of P. aquilinum, such as has been achieved with Festuca rubra and Vicia cassubica in Bulgaria (Petrov and Marrs, 2000).

Mechanical Control

Duc et al. (2000) have considered the mechanical control of P. aquilinum in the UK by cutting it once or twice a year, which reduced the total dry mass per unit area by approximately 60% after 5 years. Any mechanical treatment must be conducted over a number of years if it is to have any noticeable effect (Marrs et al., 2000). Also timing of the cuts is very important, for example the optimal time is in the autumn, before P. aquilinum has transferred its nutrient reserves from the above-ground parts back down to the rhizomes for the dormant winter period.

Chemical Control

Control by herbicide is generally difficult. Asulam has been the main chemical used in control programmes in the UK since the early 1970s, primarily because it is licensed for aerial spraying. Of other chemicals that have been tried, only glyphosate has been used in some situations where P. aquilinum is one of a number of weeds to be controlled. In recent years, aerial spraying using helicopters has been carried out on around 5000-8000 ha per year. However, only about 25% of sites sprayed with asulam show long-term suppression of bracken whilst the remaining sites normally revert back to complete P. aquilinum cover within 5-10 years. Therefore appropriate follow-up treatment is essential, such as knapsack or vehicle-based spot spraying of missed areas or regenerating fronds (Pakeman et al., 2003). In Bulgaria, glyphosate applied to a permanent meadow infested with P. aquilinum reduced the infestation but it rapidly recovered where no follow-up operations were carried out, and was more successful when carried out in combination with a follow-up weed wiping application of glyphosate (Petrov and Marrs, 2000). Metsulfuronmethyl and glyphosate-trimesium are recommended for use on P. esculentum in Tasmania (Anon., 2003).

Biological Control

In the UK, where P. aquilinum is a major weed of pasture in particular, studies on biological control were initiated in the 1970s. Lawson (1976) identified 40 arthropod species feeding on P. aquilinum, but noted their inability to prevent spread of infestations owing to the impact of native natural enemies of the arthropods. Lawton (1988) summarized the situation in the UK and discussed the requirements for successful biological control agents, emphasising the need for agents of the same subspecies of the weed, comparable climates, and for agents which would be free from attack ny native natural enemies. South Africa appeared to provide the best likelihood of finding such agents, and Lawson (1988) listed arthropods associated with P. aquilinum there, from hitherto unpublished observations. Two defoliating moths, Panotina angularis and Conservula cinisigna and an unidentified eriophyid mite were considered promising. The moths were imported into quarantine in the UK, screened and found to be host specific (Fowler et al., 1989). However, the programme was abandoned because of the costs of field testing and doubts over the wisdom of using biological control to manage a native weed (Cruttwell McFadyen, 1998). Comparative studies on the arthropod fauna of P. aquilinum on other continents; New Mexico, USA (Lawton, 1982) and Brazil (Martins et al., 1995) have also been made.

Integrated Control

Duc et al. (2000) reviewed the responses of fronds to control treatments in Great Britain and noted great variability even within a small geographical area. Follow-up application of herbicide several years after the start of a control programme enhanced the efficacy of all treatments. To develop a control strategy in the UK, Duc et al. (2003) stated the following factors must be considered: that rhizome mass differs between sites and in response to control treatments; cutting twice per year is generally most effective; where cutting is impossible, herbicide treatment should be applied. and the weather may affect rhizome mass, with wet years being detrimental. Also a combination of mechanical and chemical methods may be more effective under some conditions. Pakeman et al. (2003) have pointed out that P. aquilinum control has to be seen as part of a much larger land use/management strategy and they suggest a variety of control scenarios and restoration practices.


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Links to Websites

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GISD/IASPMR: Invasive Alien Species Pathway Management Resource and DAISIE European Invasive Alien Species Gateway source for updated system data added to species habitat list.

Distribution Maps

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