The toothbrush fern, Schizaea pectinata, is one of the most unusual ferns in South Africa if not the world. Indeed, it looks more like an odd sedge or strange grass than a fern. Most people recognise a fern by the many-divided segments that spread into a broad frond. But in Schizaea the fronds are narrow and tough. The divided segments are few and only form on fertile fronds near the top. The plants form short compact tufts of upright linear fronds. The segments of the fertile fronds are arranged into a comb-like structure (pectinate means “like a comb”). The top of the fertile frond of Schizaea pectinata is bent over and the segments all point upwards, like a row of toothbrush bristles. It is also reminiscent of a cocks-comb, which provides the species with another common name: cockscomb fern.
Ferns do not produce flowers but have spores in cases known as sporangia. In Schizaea, these sporangia are held along each side of the upright segments and are released as the frond matures. The combs are often present throughout the year but are freshest and green on new growth, hardening to brown before they then start to decay. The species is found on dry poor soils, especially in the fynbos of the Western Cape. But the species is found all the way up as far as East Africa and across to Madagascar.
There are only two species of Schizaea in South Africa and there is no mistaking them with any other plant. The other species Schizaea tenella is smaller and loves streamsides. It also has the comb-like apex to the frond but it is narrower and does not bend over. It is therefore not as distinctive and instantly recognisable a species. Schizaea pectinata is a common species but never abundant. We find it sporadically on the dry sandstone slopes of Phillipskop.