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There are over twenty thousand different species of fern. Ferns are vascular plants which are classed as Pteridophyta. They differ from other plants in the fact that they produce spores rather than seed, typically when the leaves unfold (circinate vernation). They are closely related to liverworts and mosses.
Ferns are ancient plants dating back to the Mesozoic period around 360 million years ago, pre dating any land animal and even flowering plants by at least 200 million years. To live this long they have become very adaptable to various conditions and adapt well to the places which they live naturally.
Ferns generally grow in moist, sheltered, shady locations under the canopy of a forest. They rely on a variety of factors to enable them to grow including moisture in the soil/air, nutrient availability in the soil; sufficient light for photosynthesis, temperature, protection from wind/too much sunlight/frost.
Ferns are very successful niche plants: they are well adapted to particular environmental niches - soil moisture, humidity, light, etc. They seldom grow outside these niches, some of which are very specific. For example, in the North west region, the Mother Spleenwort fern always grows near waterfalls.
The Victorians had a great passion for ferns, collecting them around the world and in some cases to extinction.