Our Red List Species Assessors: Understanding and protecting fern and lycopod diversity, an interview with Henry Väre

Pteridophytes, which include ferns and lycopods, are spore-producing plants usually found in humid environments. They provide shelter and habitat for many small animals and play essential roles in soil erosion prevention, stream bank stabilisation, removal of pollutants from the environment and soil creation on barren habitats. In this interview with Dr Henry Väre, a fern expert based in Helsinki, Finland, he talks about his work and involvement with fern research and red listing.

Henry Vare

This is the fifth of a series of interviews with our Red List Species Assessors currently involved in IUCN’s European Red Lists LIFE project. Our interviewee is a fern expert, but future interviews will profile beetle, moss, mollusc, and other plant experts. The project aims to assess the extinction risk of these species groups, and will contribute to guiding policy decisions and conservation actions at the European level. You can find previous interviews of this series here.

Dr Henry Väre first became interested in plants when he was young. “I have always been interested in recognising items – first I collected stamps, and studied the geography of the countries where those stamps were released. Later, I begun to collect plants and became interested in finding out what those plants were, as well as their background and history. I decided that taxonomy would be my field.

After a PhD at the University of Oulu in Finland, Dr Väre became a plant taxonomist and is currently working at the Botanic Museum of the University of Helsinki, studying the biogeographical evolution of South African ferns. “I am the best in the field at recognising plants, and I am truly interested in the relationships between the species, their background and evolution, and how different species have formed and spread. There is a term called reticulate evolution, meaning that many fern species have evolved due to hybridization between species. It is interesting to clarify which species are “behind” the current ones.” 


Dr Väre first became involved with the IUCN European Red List when a colleague of his, Maarten Christenhusz invited him to collaborate in the European Red List of Lycopods and Ferns being developed though the European Red Lists LIFE project.  “I have assessed the risk of extinction of the Dryopteris species, a very interesting fern genus. Many species are born through hybridization, which means that their chromosome numbers have been duplicated, or quadruplicated, and so on. Those species are very difficult to separate from each other. To be sure of the taxonomic status we have to use molecular biology.

Working with ferns requires excellent identification skills, and for Dr Väre field work is the best part of the job. “I love doing field work. You get to go to exotic places, but you also need to have a very good background knowledge of what you expect to find, in order to study those species which you can recognise. You cannot go to the field and just collect something – you have to know your study subject very well before going to the field.”

According to Dr Väre, construction activities are usually the main threat to ferns and lycopods in Europe. Climate change could also become a threat in the future, but this has proven difficult to evaluate so far. As for how we can protect these species, we should rely on protected land and water areas. “In particular water ferns are very sensitive to water pollution, so clean water is essential. Avoiding building infrastructure in certain areas is the best way to protect ferns.

However, ferns and lycopods are resilient plants and are doing better than many flowering species due to their good dispersal abilities. “In general, fern and lycopod spores spread very easily since they are quite small. Even in more fragmented landscapes such as in Europe they have an advantage. Many fern species occur in mountainous areas, and usually there is enough wind to take spores from one place to another easily. However water ferns are the exception, as they are highly threatened and usually more restricted.

Dr Väre has been involved in red listing efforts for some time, and has participated in the red list assessment of Finnish flora. “Red List assessments are necessary to provide the necessary information to decision makers. I would highly recommend people to join these evaluation projects on their own expertise fields. I will also be participating in another evaluation of Artic species globally and continue with this kind of work in the future.”

His work with European ferns will be part of the upcoming European Red List of Lycopods and Ferns, which will reveal the status of European pteridophyte species and inform conservation decisions in Europe. “I hope the report will be spread effectively to the right people, including local nature protection people and administrators.”

As for Dr Väre’s favourite species: “The Fragrant Woodfern (Dryopteris fragrans) – the main population is in Finland and this fern is very beautiful. Its name relates to their very pleasant smell.

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