Table of Contents
Sealy, R.L. and S. Bostic. 1993. Cliff brake fern: A native Texas fern with
landscaping potential. p. 612-613. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), New
crops. Wiley, New York.
Cliff Brake Fern: A Native Texas Fern with Landscaping Potential
Ramsey L. Sealy and Steve Bostic
- DESCRIPTION OF THE PLANT
- UTILITY IN THE LANDSCAPE
- Fig. 1
- Fig. 2
Cliff Brake Fern [Pellaea ovata (Desv.) Weath.] is a native Texas fern
that is found in nature on dry ledges and slopes of limestone outcroppings,
calcareous rocks, or granite. It is frequently found on cliffs or at their
bases; but also grows well in open rocky woodlands (Correll and Johnston 1979).
Because of its tolerance to high temperatures, bright light, and alkaline
conditions, cliff break fern might be well adapted to being incorporated into
the xeriscape. Cliff break fern thrives in rich, well-drained soil (Hoshizaki
1975), and should be adaptable to many landscape situations.
Cliff Brake Fern has an attractive color, ranging from dark green to
grayish-green (Jones 1987) and it has an interesting fine, open texture due to
its peculiar rachis and costa structure (Lellinger 1985). Cliff break fern and
other Pellaea spp. have been grown on trellises and in hanging baskets
in greenhouses in the Northeast (Foster 1964), but its use in southern
landscapes has been ignored. Because of the plant's apparent wide ecological
adaptability and its ornamental qualities, P. ovata deserves
consideration for use in the landscape and, in particular, in the xeriscape.
P. ovata is a member of the Polypodiaceae, subfamily Gymnogrammeoidae,
and tribe Cheilantheae (Tryon and Tryon 1973). Within the genus
Pellaea, P. ovata is in the section Pellaea (Tryon and Tryon
P. ovata has slender rhizomes. Its leaves (fronds) may grow to 1 m or
more in length and are divaricately bipinnate to tripinnate (Correll and
Johnston 1979). There are 3 to 20 stalked pinnules on each pinna; the
leaflets are 2 cm long and 1.5 cm wide and are ovate to oblong in shape with
cordate to truncate bases (Correll and Johnston 1979) (Fig. 1). The petioles
and rachises are pale tan-colored; the stalk is hard, dark, and polished
(Hoshizaki 1975). The rachises and rachillae zigzag, often quite dramatically
(Bailey and Bailey 1976). The zigzag pattern may all be in one plane or in
several planes. Sori are borne in a marginal band along the blades and are
covered by the reflexed margins of the pinnules (Bailey and Bailey 1976). The
range of P. ovata is similar to that of several other American species
of Pellaea, extending from the southwestern United States south to Argentina
(Tryon and Tryon 1982).
The entire genus is adapted to relatively xeric conditions. The partially
underground stems are covered with scales and have the capacity to survive
light ground fires (Tryon and Tryon 1982). Further, the apogamous gametophytes
do not require free water for fertilization (Tryon and Tryon 1982). New plants
can be established during short moist periods because of rapid spore
germination and sporophyte initiation (Tryon and Tryon 1982). P. ovata
can tolerate and even thrive in moderate shade (as in open woodlands), but it
may grow slowly under dense shade (Clute 1938). It is equally well adapted to
full sun conditions (Hoshizaki 1975). P. ovata is native to areas with
both very thin alkaline soils and areas with rich woodland soils (Clute 1938).
P. ovata tolerates extremely hot summers (highs at 40°C or more) and
can withstand at least brief periods of below freezing temperatures (periods of
-17°C are reported with survival) (Hoshizaki 1975).
Several attributes recommend P. ovata as a xeriscape plant. These
include its drought resistance and its tolerance of both alkaline soils and
high temperatures. Cliff brake fern responds well to regular irrigation, but
can thrive with neglect and occasional watering. We have observed that with
even prolonged wilting, mature fronds of P. ovata revive with watering.
Overwatering can kill cliff brake fern, and so it should not be placed with
plants that have high water needs (Hoshizaki 1975). Since the fern is tolerant
of both full sun and moderate shade, it can be used throughout the landscape in
most light environments, except dense shade. Because it also grows well in
rich woodland soils, P. ovata should be adaptable to many landscape
schemes besides a xeriscape one. Some morphological characteristics make cliff
break fern an interesting addition to the landscape (Fig. 2). The generic name
Pellaea comes from a Greek word meaning "dusky" (Bailey and Bailey
1976), and the pinnules of P. ovata are somewhat to very glaucous. The
small size of the leaflets (pinnules) and the open, zigzag character of the
rachis allows P. ovata to lend an interesting open, light texture to the
landscape. Cliff break fern can be effectively used in the landscape as a
specimen plant, both potted or in the soil, and as part of a border, either by
itself or in a mixed border.
Further popularization of P. ovata as a landscape plant will require
determination of the limits of the fern's cold (freeze) tolerance, the extent
of both drought and water-logging tolerance, information on the effect of
different levels of shade on Cliff Break Fern's growth and survivability, and
knowledge of the long-term adaptability of this new plant to the home
- Clute, W.N. 1938. Our ferns, their haunts, habits and folklore. 2nd ed.
Lippincott, New York.
- Correll, D.S., and M.C. Johnston. 1979. Manual of the vascular plants of
Texas. The Univ. of Texas at Dallas, Richardson.
- Foster, F.G. 1964. The gardener's fern book. Van Nostrand, Princeton, NJ.
- Hoshizaki, B.J. 1975. Fern grower's manual. Knopf, New York.
- Jones, D.L. 1987. Encyclopaedia of ferns. Timber Press, Portland, OR.
- Lellinger, D.B. 1985. A field guide of the ferns and fern-allies of the
United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.
- Staff of the Bailey Hortorium. 1976. Hortus III, Revised. Macmillan, New
- Tryon, R.M., Jr. and A.F. Tryon. 1973. Geography, spores, and evolutionary
relations in the cheilanthoid ferns, p. 145-153. In: A.C. Jermy, J.A. Crabbe,
and B.A. Thomas (eds.). The phylogeny and classification of the ferns.
Academic Press, London.
- Tryon, R.M., Jr. and A.F. Tryon. 1982. Ferns and allied plants.
Springer-Verlag, New York.
Fig. 1. A specimen of Pellaea ovata.
Fig. 2. Use of Pellaea ovata in the landscape.
Last update September 17, 1997