Fragrant woodfern is a leathery, tough fern commonly found growing in clusters in rocky slopes and outcrops from the lowlands to the alpine zone, sometimes scattered in rocky tundra or openings in the forest on steep south-facing slopes. The pinnae are slightly angled upwards. Each plant will have many persistent, curling dead leaves. The outline of the whole frond is long-elliptic, broadest at the middle. The fronds are 2-3 pinnate. The stem (stipe) is short, with many papery brown or rust-brown scales the whole length (largest at the base). All leaves are fertile in D. fragrans, the backs dotted with rust-brown sori. Covering the sori is a kidney-shaped, white indusium which becomes brown and falls off early in the season. Plants are often short, but can grow to 30 cm in protected sites. Fragrant wood fern has many glands and, as the name implies, is sweet-smelling. It can be mistaken for Woodsia ilvensis, which is similarly shaped fronds and found in rocky situations, but D. fragrans is coarser, stouter, and has kidney-shaped indusia while W. ilvensis only has dissected hairs around its sori (use a hand lens!).
This species is perennial, with evergreen leaves. Spores are typically produced in early to mid-summer.
Dryopteris fragrans is, like all ferns, a spore-producing plant. Spores germinate into haploid gametophytes, which can be fertilized to become new, diploid ferns. Spores germinate into minute, heart-shaped gametophytes, which can produce full-grown ferns if fertilized. The mating system of fragrant woodfern (whether it is out-crossing or self-fertilizing) has not been studied, and little is known about its reproductive biology.
Fragrant woodfern has an incompletely circumpolar distribution (circumboreal-montane). In North America, this species is widely distributed in the East, from Greenland to Maine and the Great Lakes, with a more northern range in the west, across Alaska and Yukon to the adjacent edges of British Columbia and Northwest Territory. Fragrant woodfern occurs in montane areas of Alaska statewide, except for the southern coastal areas, including the Alaska Peninsula, southeast Alaska and the southern Kenai Peninsula. Dryopteris fragrans occurs most frequently in the northeastern quadrant of Denali, and is absent or rare south of the Alaska Range crest in the park.