Rhizomes slender, creeping, black, shiny, apex clothed with brown ovate-lanceolate scales. Fronds distant; fertile lamina (15-)20-30(-50) cm; stipe stramineous, 10-22(-35) cm, slender, with sparse scales at base; lamina nearly tripartite, usually 2-pinnate-pinnatifid, pentagonal-ovate or broadly ovate-triangular, 7-15(-20) cm long and wide, thinly herbaceous or submembranous, base broadly cuneate, apex acuminate; basal pair of pinnae nearly as large as other portion of lamina, narrowly triangular, (3.5-)5-9(-12) × 2.5-4(-7) cm, pinnate-pinnatifid, base subtruncate, with stalk (0.8-)1-1.5(-2.5) cm, portion of rachis between basal pinnae and central lamina ca. 3 cm; pinnules 5 or 6 pairs, oblong-lanceolate, 1.5-2(-4) × 0.5-2 cm, base rounded-cuneate, sessile, apex acute or acuminate, opposite or subopposite, spreading; largest pinnules with 6-10 pairs of segments, segments approximate, oblong to narrowly ovate, ca. 4 mm, lobed to narrow costular wing, entire to shallowly lobed at margin, rounded-obtuse at apex; second basal pair of pinnae 1.5-4 cm apart from basal pair, sometimes shortly stalked, upper pinnae sessile; veins pinnate in segment, simple, oblique, visible abaxially; rachis and costae slender, eglandular. Sori small, exindusiate, orbicular, abaxial on veins. Spore wall surface rugate, foveolate. 2n = 160.
American Gymnocarpium dryopteris is an allotetraploid species that arose following hybridization and polyploidization between G. disjunctum (Ruprecht) Ching and G. appalachianum Pryer & Haufler.
Sarvela noted that a specimen of Gymnocarpium dryopteris from Japan was indusiate; the indusia were reniform, ca. 0.5 mm in diam., hyaline, glabrate, erose at margin. It may be an example of atavism.
"Petiole 10–30 cm; blade yellow-green, scaleless, deltoid-pentagonal, to 18 × 25 cm, bipinnate-pinnatifid to tripinnate-pinnatifid, glabrous or occasionally slightly glandular especially along the rachis, pinnae several pairs, opposite, the members of the lowest pair deltoid and each nearly as long as the rest of the blade, with a petiolule to 2.5 cm long, distinctly asymmetrical, the lowest basiscopic segment evidently the largest, mostly a third as long as the main rachis or longer; ultimate segments oblong, 8–18 mm, obtuse, the margins crenate to subpinnatifid, not recurved; veins 2–6 pairs, mostly simple; 2n=160 (ours). Cool woods and talus-slopes; circumboreal, s. to Va., N.C., O., Ill., Io., and Ariz. A vegetatively reproducing hybrid with the next is G. ×heterosporum W. H. Wagner."