The name comes from the observation by early American settlers that it was very sensitive to frost, the fronds dying quickly when first touched by it. The bright, yellow-green sterile fronds are deeply pinnatifid and are typically borne at intervals along a creeping rhizome. They grow to about 90 cm long, with a long, smooth stipe. The fertile fronds are much smaller, non-green, and have very narrow pinnae. The sori are clustered like beads or grapes on the upright fertile fronds, hence the common name bead fern. The fiddleheads are a pale red color.
Found near a variety of wet swamp and wood habitats: wet meadows, thickets and bogs, as well as stream and riverbanks and roadside ditches.