Maidenhair Spleenwort fern (Asplenium trichomanes) (Dave Purchase)

Ferns, horsetails, quillworts and clubmosses (Pteridophytes)

About ferns, horsetails, quillworts and clubmosses

Ferns, horsetails, quillworts and clubmosses are groups of plants that were grouped together by early botanists as Pteridophyta or pteridophytes, before it was appreciated how structurally diverse they are, having separated evolutionarily hundreds of millions of years ago.  The feature that distinguishes the pteridophytes from plants that evolved later, such as conifers and flowering plants, is that they do not have  flowers and seeds, but reproduce as spores, similarly to mosses, liverworts, fungi and lichen.

It is tempting to think that because pteridophytes evolved early and dominated the land for millions of years, that they are somehow more ‘primitive’ than later flowering plants. This is far from the case. Evolution has continued, and modern pteridophytes are as evolved as any other contemporary organisms.

In the UK there numerous species of fern, 8 species of horsetail (plus various hybrids)), 3 species of quillwort, and 8 species of clubmoss.

Ferns, horsetails, quillworts and clubmosses (Pteridophytes) in the High Peak

For these buttons with the solid borders to work properly you will need to be registered and logged into iNaturalist. This is a free and extremely useful app. See our ‘How to record wildlife’ page for more information and tips on how to use it.

Takes you to the up-to-date list and photo galleries of all pteridophyte observations within the High Peak area, as recorded on iNaturalist

Takes you to the up-to-date list and photo galleries of all pteridophyte observations within the ‘Buxton polygon’ area, as recorded on iNaturalist and collected by the Buxton Biodiversity Recording Group project


Ferns come in a variety of forms, most of them conforming to the familiar unfurling frond sructure, with profiles that range from undivided to multiply divided. There are a few axa which look distinctly different and ‘unfernlike’ in the typical sense. These include moonworts, adder’s-tongues, pillwort and water fern. The rest are either undivided, pinnate, bipnnate or tripinnate in their leaf forms.

Undivided; e.g. Hart’s tongue fern.

Hart's-tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium)nMillers Dale, 15Jan22 (DP)
Hart's-tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium) showing sori. Millers Dale 15Jan22 (DP)

Pinnate; e.g. Intermediate Polypody fern.

Intermediate Polypody fern (Polypodium interjectum). Wyedale, 17Jan22 (DP)
Intermediate Polypody fern (Polypodium interjectum) showing sori. Wyedale, 17Jan22 (DP)

Bipinnate; e.g. Lemon-scented fern.

Lemon-scented fern (Oreoptera limbosperma) showing sori. Millers Dale,15Jan22 (DP)
Lemon-scented fern (Oreoptera limbosperma) showing sori. Millers Dale, 15Jan22 (DP)

Tripinnate; e.g. […]

Photos needed


Photos of horsetails needed


Photos of quillworts needed


Photos of clubmosses needed

Identifying ferns, horsetails and clubmosses

Britain’s Ferns: A field guide to the clubmosses, quillworts, horsetails and ferns  of Great Britain and Ireland

James Merryweather

WILDGuides (Princeton University Press)

An excellent guide in this excellent series. Good and easy to use keys combined with high quality photos in a robust and high quality binding. Recommended.

Collins Guide to the Ferns, Mosses & Lichens of Britain and Northern and Central Europe

Hans Martin Jahns


A good guide with photos. Out of print but obtainable secondhand.

What’s That Fern?

British Pteridological Society

British Pteridological Society

Very useful 16-page booklet, downloadable from the BPS website. Click here to see a copy.

Information and guidance

The society for fern enthusiasts

The Society was founded in the Lake District in 1891 and soon became the focal point for fern enthusiasts throughout the British Isles. Today it continues to provide a wide range of information about ferns, through its website and by publishing regular journals, leaflets and books, and organising formal talks, informal discussions and outdoor meetings. The international membership includes those interested in gardening, natural history and botany, both amateur and professional. It is a friendly society run on a voluntary basis.

The Objects of the Society are to promote all aspects of pteridology by encouraging the appreciation, conservation, cultivation and scientific study of ferns, horsetails, clubmosses and quillworts through publications, meetings, the provision of grants and other appropriate means.