Fragrant Cliff Fern

Dryopteris fragrans (L.) Schott

Dryopteris fragrans
Troy Weldy

Filicopsida (Ferns)
Dryopteridaceae (Wood-fern Family)
State Protection
Listed as Threatened by New York State: likely to become Endangered in the foreseeable future. For animals, taking, importation, transportation, or possession is prohibited, except under license or permit. For plants, removal or damage without the consent of the landowner is prohibited.
Federal Protection
Not Listed
State Conservation Status Rank
Imperiled in New York - Very vulnerable to disappearing from New York due to rarity or other factors; typically 6 to 20 populations or locations in New York, very few individuals, very restricted range, few remaining acres (or miles of stream), and/or steep declines.
Global Conservation Status Rank
Secure globally - Common in the world; widespread and abundant (but may be rare in some parts of its range).


Did you know?

This is the smallest of our North American wood ferns. The fragrance, which some people liken to primrose, comes from the tiny glandular hairs on the fronds. The New York plants are at the southeastern limit of the species range.

State Ranking Justification

There are 10 known populations and at least ten historical populations. These historical locations are in the Adirondacks in areas that have likely remained unchanged since the plants were last reported. Surveys focused on these areas will likely lead to the rediscovery of these populations. Few threats are known for this plant, mainly because it is found in relatively difficult to access areas.

Short-term Trends

Some of these sites have been visited/known for many years. The trend seems stable for most populations.

Long-term Trends

There are 10 historical sites but many of them have not been checked so an accurate picture of the long-term trend has not been possible. The sites are isolated so there probably has not been a great deal of change.

Conservation and Management


The sites are isolated so there is very little human threat. The plants are at the southern extreme of the range so they may be threatened in the future by global warming. The Catskill populations are located on north-facing cliff faces near waterfalls. If ice climbing becomes more popular, we could see an impact on these populations.

Conservation Strategies and Management Practices

There are no management needs at this time.

Research Needs

There are no research needs at this time except to follow-up on some of the historical populations. Surveys should be conducted at Avalanche Pass, Cascade Lakes, Indian Lake, Joy Mountain, Mount Immortelle, Panther Mountain, and Wilmington Notch.



This fern prefers cool, moist sandstone cliff faces, often near waterfalls; or dry shaded cliffs (New York Natural Heritage Program 2004). Shaded cliffs and talus, often on limestone (Flora of North America 1993). Cliff-crevices, often on limestone (Gleason and Cronquist 1991). Dry cliffs, rocky banks, and talus slopes, usually limy and with a northern exposure (Cobb 1984). Dry cliffs and rocky banks, often calcareous (Fernald 1970).

Associated Ecological Communities

  • Cliff community (guide)
    A community that occurs on vertical exposures of resistant, non-calcareous bedrock (such as quartzite, sandstone, or schist) or consolidated material; these cliffs often include ledges and small areas of talus.
  • Shale cliff and talus community* (guide)
    A community that occurs on nearly vertical exposures of shale bedrock and includes ledges and small areas of talus. Talus areas are composed of small fragments that are unstable and steeply sloping; the unstable nature of the shale results in uneven slopes and many rock crevices.

* probable association but not confirmed.

Associated Species

  • Aquilegia canadensis (wild columbine, red columbine)
  • Arabidopsis lyrata
  • Asplenium trichomanes
  • Betula alleghaniensis (yellow birch)
  • Betula lenta (black birch)
  • Cystopteris bulbifera (bulblet fern)
  • Cystopteris fragilis (fragile fern)
  • Diervilla lonicera (bush-honeysuckle)
  • Gymnocarpium dryopteris (oak fern)
  • Marchantia polymorpha
  • Ribes cynosbati (prickly gooseberry, dogberry)
  • Ribes glandulosum (skunk currant)
  • Rubus phoenicolasius (wineberry)
  • Tsuga canadensis (eastern hemlock)


New York State Distribution

A fern limited to a few populations in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks and cliffs of the Catskills.

Global Distribution

A circumboreal fern. In North America, it ranges south to New York, Ontario, northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

Identification Comments

General Description

This is a very attractive fern that grows from the sides of wet cliffs. The graceful, drooping, evergreen leaves arise from a few to many dead brown leaves at the base. They grow up to 30 cm long and 6 cm broad and narrow to the base and the tip. There are 15-40 pairs of leaflets that are twice-divided and covered with glands. The leaf stalk is covered with shining brown to reddish scales. The spore packets are arranged in circles on the bottom of the leaves and are covered with a kidney shaped flap of tissue (indusium). Sometimes they become so numerous the bottom of the leaves appear chocolate-colored.

Identifying Characteristics

A fern with a stout rhizome covered with numerous persistent shriveled and curled old fronds. The stipe is 1-15 cm long, glandular, and chaffy at base with lustrous brown or reddish often glandular-puberulent scales 3-15 mm long. The leaves are evergreen, 7-30 cm long, up to 6 cm broad, glandular and aromatic, lanceolate to broadly linear, tapering from middle to base and apex, and with 15-25 (40) pairs of pinnately incised or crenate pinnae 0.2-2 cm long. The indusia are densely crowded and overlapping one another with the very narrow sinus commonly obscured.

Best Life Stage for Proper Identification

Only the fronds are needed to identify this fern, but fresh fronds with sori are best.

Similar Species

A relatively unique fern within the Dryopteris genus. Some may confuse this fern with Woodsia which has an inferior indusium and a blade that does not taper near the base. Also, there are no aromatic glands on Woodsia.

Best Time to See

This fern may remain green year-round with spores present during the summer and fall. Surveys are best conducted during the summer since many plants are located near waterfalls, cliff faces, and steep slopes that are ice and snow-covered in the winter.

  • Vegetative
  • Fruiting

The time of year you would expect to find Fragrant Cliff Fern vegetative and fruiting in New York.

Fragrant Cliff Fern Images


Fragrant Cliff Fern
Dryopteris fragrans (L.) Schott

  • Kingdom Plantae
    • Phylum Filicinophyta
      • Class Filicopsida (Ferns)
        • Order Filicales
          • Family Dryopteridaceae (Wood-fern Family)

Additional Common Names

  • Fragrant Cliff Wood-fern
  • Fragrant Fern
  • Fragrant Shield Fern
  • Fragrant Wood Fern


  • Dryopteris fragrans var. remotiuscula Komarov
  • Polypodium fragrans L.
  • Thelypteris fragrans (Linnaeus) Nieuwland

Comments on the Classification

This fern is not closely related to any of the many other Dryopteris species present in North America.

Additional Resources

Best Identification Reference

Gleason, Henry A. and A. Cronquist. 1991. Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada. The New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, New York. 910 pp.

Other References

Cobb, Boughton. 1984. A field guide to ferns and their related families. 281 pp.. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, New York. The Peterson Field Guide Series.

Fernald, M.L. 1950. Gray's manual of botany. 8th edition. D. Van Nostrand, New York. 1632 pp.

Holmgren, Noel. 1998. The Illustrated Companion to Gleason and Cronquist's Manual. Illustrations of the Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada. The New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, New York.

Mitchell, Richard S. and Gordon C. Tucker. 1997. Revised Checklist of New York State Plants. Contributions to a Flora of New York State. Checklist IV. Bulletin No. 490. New York State Museum. Albany, NY. 400 pp.

New York Natural Heritage Program. 2010. Biotics database. New York Natural Heritage Program. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Albany, NY.

New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. New York Natural Heritage Program Databases. Albany, NY.

Reschke, Carol. 1990. Ecological communities of New York State. New York Natural Heritage Program, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Latham, NY. 96 pp. plus xi.

Weldy, T. and D. Werier. 2010. New York flora atlas. [S.M. Landry, K.N. Campbell, and L.D. Mabe (original application development), Florida Center for Community Design and Research University of South Florida]. New York Flora Association, Albany, New York


About This Guide

Information for this guide was last updated on: September 8, 2004

Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. Online Conservation Guide for Dryopteris fragrans. Available from: Accessed July 19, 2024.