How to Kill Bracken


Bracken, a common fern in the UK, is often considered a problematic plant due to its aggressive growth and the difficulty involved in controlling it. Aptly named Pteridium aquilinum, bracken can quickly overrun gardens, fields, and natural habitats, creating a dense underbrush that threatens native flora and fauna. Its thrifty nature is attributed to its complex system of underground stems, which allows it to spread rapidly, making eradication a challenge. Learn how to tackle this pervasive plant with effective strategies that prioritise your safety and the well-being of your ecosystem.

Despite its troublesome reputation, bracken management need not be an insurmountable obstacle. There are both chemical and non-chemical methods to keep this fern in check. Non-chemical options include manual removal and consistent cutting, which gradually diminishes the plant’s vigour. Chemical treatments offer a more immediate solution; however, they must be conducted with care to avoid damage to other plant life and wildlife. For those who must resort to herbicides, products containing asulam have been recognised for their efficacy in controlling bracken. Whichever method you choose, understanding the lifecycle of bracken and monitoring the affected areas are key to sustained management and successful eradication of the plant.

Things to consider:

  • Bracken can aggressively colonise areas, impeding biodiversity.
  • Manual and chemical methods can effectively control its spread.
  • Regular monitoring is crucial for long-term management of bracken.

Understanding Bracken

When dealing with bracken, it is crucial to understand its biology and the places it thrives. These insights will aid you in identifying and managing this persistent fern effectively.

Biology and Identification

Bracken is known scientifically as Pteridium aquilinum and is recognisable by its large, triangular fronds that unfurl in the spring and die back in the autumn. The plant propagates both by rhizomes, which are horizontal underground stems, and by windborne spores. These rhizomes can spread extensively beneath the soil, creating vast networks that support new growth.

Habitat and Distribution

As a native British fern, bracken is typically found in woodland settings, but it also colonises heaths and moorland. Its habitat preference is often dictated by available sunlight and soil conditions. You can encounter bracken across the UK, displaying its hardiness and adaptability to various regional climates.

Impact of Bracken on Ecosystems

Bracken ferns, especially prevalent in the UK, impose significant challenges to the ecosystem due to their aggressive growth and associated effects, which you need to be aware of.

Effects on Biodiversity

Bracken, by its very nature, is a fast-spreading fern that aggressively outcompetes other vegetation. This results in a monotone landscape where few other plant species can thrive, significantly reducing total biodiversity. In areas where bracken dominates, you’ll notice less floral diversity, which in turn affects the wildlife that depends on a variety of plants for food and habitat.

Bracken and Livestock

Your grazing livestock, including cattle, sheep, and horses, can be negatively impacted by bracken invasion. Large bracken expanses can make land unsuitable for grazing, reducing available pasture and potentially poisoning animals if consumed in large quantities, as bracken is known to be toxic.

Bracken and Human Health

Bracken poses direct and indirect risks to your health. It is a habitat for ticks, which are known vectors of Lyme disease – a serious condition that you should be vigilant of when in areas with high bracken. Some control methods involving chemicals may expose you to carcinogenic compounds such as glyphosate. Furthermore, bracken itself contains carcinogens that could pose a long-term risk of cancer when in frequent contact or if inadvertently ingested.

Bracken Control Strategies

To effectively manage bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), it’s essential to apply appropriate control strategies. These methods can be broadly classified into chemical, non-chemical, and cultural practices, each suited to different situations and with varying degrees of effectiveness and environmental impact.

Chemical Control Methods

Employing chemical control involves the careful use of herbicides to reduce bracken growth. Glyphosate and Asulox are two commonly used herbicides for this purpose. Glyphosate, found in products like Roundup, targets the plant’s systemic functions, leading to its death. On the other hand, Asulox is particularly effective against bracken due to its selective nature. You should apply these herbicides by spraying in the late summer when bracken fronds are fully developed but before they start to yellow and die back.

Non-Chemical Control Methods

Alternatively, non-chemical control offers environmentally friendly options such as cutting, crushing, and digging out the bracken. Cutting should occur as the fronds reach full size, and repeating the process several times during the growing season will deplete the plant’s energy reserves. Crushing the bracken can also be effective and usually requires machinery. For smaller areas or precise control, digging out bracken by hand can be viable, although it’s labor-intensive.

Cultural Control and Maintenance

Cultural methods focus on creating an environment where bracken can’t thrive. Ploughing and re-seeding with competitive grasses can convert bracken land to productive pasture. Burning can be used to rapidly clear dense fronds, but it requires careful handling to avoid environmental damage and must be accompanied by re-seeding or another form of vegetation establishment to prevent bracken from re-establishing. Continual maintenance is a must, as bracken can quickly recover if efforts are not sustained.

Safe and Effective Bracken Management

Managing bracken effectively and safely is crucial to protect both health and the environment. You should consider both the appropriate choice of control methods and the potential impacts of those methods.

Health and Safety Considerations

When dealing with bracken control, your safety is paramount. Herbicides such as glyphosate and asulam are commonly used for bracken management. Glyphosate is systemic, absorbing into plants to effectively kill them, but it is also classified as a probable human carcinogen. Conversely, asulam is selective, targeting ferns while sparing surrounding grass. Always wear protective clothing, including gloves and a mask, to prevent skin contact and avoid inhaling sprays. It’s crucial to follow product instructions meticulously and to consider the potential of the herbicides being poisonous if misused.

Environmental Considerations

The environmental impact of bracken control is not to be taken lightly. While bracken is often deemed invasive, it also provides habitat for various animals, birds, and mammals. Mechanical methods such as cutting can reduce bracken without the use of chemicals, preserving the integrity of the ecosystem and reducing risk to non-target plants and trees. When chemical control is necessary, opt for selective herbicides like asulam to minimise damage to other ferns and plants in your garden. Always ensure that any treatment does not contaminate water sources or adjacent land, safeguarding local wildlife and plant communities.

Ongoing Monitoring and Maintenance

After your initial efforts to control bracken, ongoing vigilance is paramount. Your goal is to eradicate the weed completely, which often requires persistent follow-up treatments. During spring and late summer, when new fronds emerge, be on the lookout for signs of regrowth.

Identify reddish-brown fiddleheads – these are the newly unfurled fronds. Monitoring these will give you an indication of the bracken’s lifecycle and the ideal times for intervention. As autumn approaches, withered fronds will die back, but this doesn’t mean the bracken is gone; it’s merely entering a dormant phase.

Infestation may vary based on climates, soils, and shade levels in your local allotments or adjacent countryside. Pay close attention to these areas as bracken thrives in diverse conditions.

To get rid of bracken, consistently cut the stems at ground level. This disrupts the plant’s ability to photosynthesise and deprives the roots of energy.

Key Actions:

  • Spring: Look for new growth—fiddleheads—and remove.
  • Late Summer: Cut down any new fronds to reduce energy reserves.
  • Autumn: Check for withered fronds as they die back; plan for next year’s control.
  • Winter: Assess the area for any signs of bracken missed during earlier seasons.

Monitoring Tips:

  • Regularly inspect for bracken in varying climates and soils.
  • Use a systematic approach to cover all ground, especially edges and shade.
  • Compete the bracken with other vegetation to naturally suppress its growth.
  • Monitor wind patterns as bracken spores are windborne.

Remember, bracken is a resilient weed and repeated efforts are required to eradicate it completely. Always follow up with consistent monitoring and maintenance to manage and eventually eliminate bracken from your land.

Frequently Asked Questions

In this section, you’ll find answers to common queries about bracken control methods, risks, and identification.

What natural methods are effective in controlling bracken?

Natural methods such as cutting or crushing the bracken fronds can weaken the plant over time. Regular slashing during the growing season, for several years, can help to deplete the energy reserves of the plant’s underground rhizomes.

Can applying lime be a viable solution to eradicate bracken ferns?

Applying lime may change soil pH and could deter bracken growth if the soil conditions become less favourable for it. However, this method is not typically a standalone solution and should be considered as part of a broader management strategy.

What are the most effective strategies for managing bracken in domestic gardens?

For managing bracken in domestic gardens, a combination of manual removal—like digging out the rhizomes—and targeted foliar herbicide treatments, performed during the growing season, are among the most effective strategies.

Why is bracken considered to be an invasive species?

Bracken is considered invasive due to its ability to spread rapidly by windborne spores and extensive underground rhizome networks that outcompete native vegetation, reducing biodiversity and altering habitats.

What are the potential health risks associated with bracken spores?

Bracken spores have been associated with carcinogenic compounds that can pose health risks to humans and animals when inhaled or ingested over prolonged periods.

How can one distinguish bracken from other fern species?

Bracken can be distinguished from other fern species by its large, highly divided triangular fronds and the presence of a central, upright stalk. The individual leaves (pinnae) on a frond are also arranged in a herringbone pattern.

About the author 


Hey there, I am founder and editor in chief here at Good Grow. I guess I've always known I was going to be a gardener. I'm on a mission to share my UK based weed control & lawn care tips with you all. If you have any queries please post in the comments below.

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