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Purple-stem Cliff-brake (Pellaea atropurpurea)

Life history

Species overview

Purple-stem Cliff-brake (Pellaea atropurpurea), a Wisconsin Special Concern plant, is found on dry, exposed sandstone and dolomite cliffs, especially near the Mississippi River. This species can be identified year-round.

Synonyms: Pellaea atropurpurea var. cristata, Pteris atropurpurea


  • Distinguishing characteristics: Leaves slightly dimorphic, stiffly erect; petiole and rachis strongly hairy.
  • Flower characteristics:
  • Fruit characteristics: Sori pale brown; true indusium absent.
  • Leaf characteristics: Slightly dimorphic, stiffly erect, mostly 20 to 40 cm; petiole shorter than the blade, purplish-brown, obviously hairy especially on the upper side; pinnae in 5 to 11 pairs; sterile, basal pinnae mostly at least twice as long as the upper and with 3 to 15 segments; fertile pinnae narrower than the sterile, linear-oblong, acute, and with an irregularly revolute margin opening and commonly leaving many sporangia exposed, eventually becoming flat.


  • Blooming phenology:
  • Fruiting phenology: mid summer
  • Optimum time to identify: This species can be identified year-round


  • Growth form: Fern
  • Vegetative reproduction: Rhizomatous
  • Life cycle: Perennial
  • Comments: Associated Species: Juniperus virginiana, Pellaea glabella, Cheilanthes feei.

State status

Status and Natural Heritage Inventory documented occurrences in Wisconsin

The table below provides information about the protected status - state and federal - and the rank (S and G Ranks) for Purple-stem Cliff-brake (Pellaea atropurpurea). See the Working List Key for more information about abbreviations. Counties shaded blue have documented occurrences for this species in the Wisconsin Natural Heritage Inventory database. The map is provided as a general reference of where this species has been found to date and is not meant as a range map.

Documented locations of Pellaea atropurpurea in the Natural Heritage Inventory Database as of July 2015.

Summary Information
State StatusSC
Federal Status in Wisconsinnone
State RankS2
Global RankG5
Tracked by NHIY

Habitats and landscapes

The Natural Heritage Inventory has developed scores indicating the degree to which each of Wisconsin's rare plant species is associated with a particular natural community or ecological landscape. This information is similar to that found in the Wildlife Action Plan for animals. As this is a work in progress, we welcome your suggestions and feedback.

General habitat information

  • Habitat description: Found on dry, exposed sandstone and dolomite cliffs, especially near the Mississippi River.
  • Soils: Dry, calcareous or sandy soils.

Natural communities

This table lists the natural communities that are associated with Purple-stem Cliff-brake. Scores for natural community associations are: "significant" association (score=3), "moderate association" (score=2) or the species can be present but is only weakly associated with the community (score=1).

Natural communities score
Dry Cliff 3

Ecological landscapes

This table lists the ecological landscape association scores for Purple-stem Cliff-brake. The scores (3=High, 2=Moderate, 1=Low, 0=None) also correspond to the map.

Map of the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin.

Ecological landscape score
Central Sand Hills 2
Western Coulee and Ridges 3

Species guidance

The Endangered Resources Program has developed avoidance measures and management guidelines for plants on the Natural Heritage Working List. These are a work in progress, and we welcome your suggestions and feedback. Sources used in developing this information can be found here.

Avoidance measures

These are specific actions designed to avoid "take" (mortality) of this species.

  • Avoid broadcast spraying of herbicides; use care with spot spraying.
  • Avoid known individual plant locations and conduct operations elsewhere when they are least likely to cause damage. Ideally, this would involve frozen, snow-covered ground. However, in areas of the state where frozen conditions are unreliable, very dry soils late in the growing season might be the best available alternative. Consult with a biologist, if needed.

Management guidance

Management guidelines are additional considerations that may help maintain or enhance habitat for this species

  • Follow BMPs, especially around streams and use care near ravines, steep slopes, cliffs, rock outcrops, etc.


Purple-stem Cliff-brake Photo.

Photo by Matt Zine, Wisconsin DNR.

Purple-stem Cliff-brake Photo.

Photo by Matt Zine, Wisconsin DNR.

Purple-stem Cliff-brake Photo.

Photo by Matt Zine, Wisconsin DNR.

Purple-stem Cliff-brake Photo.

Photo © Chris Noll.

Support for Wisconsin's rare plant information has been provided by the Division of Forestry, the Endangered Resources Fund and the Wisconsin Rare Plant Preservation Fund. To donate, visit the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin [exit DNR].

Last revised: Wednesday, May 05, 2021
Southwest Savanna Southern Lake Michigan Coastal Western Coulees and Ridges Southeast Glacial Plains Central Sand Hills Central Lake Michigan Coastal Central Sand Plains Northern Lake Michigan Coastal Northern Lake Michigan Coastal Northeast Sands Western Prairie North Central Forest Northern Highlands Northwest Lowlands Northwest Sands Northwest Lowlands Superior Coastal Plains Forest Transition