Talk about being survivors…ferns are one of the oldest group of plants on the planet, dating back 3 million years. Despite their adaptive capabilities, they are still one of the most overlooked perennials. Alas, gardeners are easily distracted by blossoms, small or huge, subtle or bold, and forget about the steadfast display of handsome foliage.
Consider these reasons why you should make room for more ferns . 1. They are the ultimate foliage plant. 2. Ferns are plants that don’t mind benign neglect. 3. They look gorgeous unfurling with new growth in early spring and provide a refreshing, deer resistant oasis in the shade all summer long. 4. Some ferns turn colors of bronze or gold in the fall before they are knocked down by frost while others provide a persistent green though the winter. 5. There are ferns for various soil conditions… yes, some tolerate drier soils although most appreciate some amount of moisture. Learn which ones will thrive in your soil conditions and you’ll have few problems.
Ferns 101. Some basic fern terminology. When reading descriptions you may get confused by the botanical terms, so here are the basics:
Ferns erupt as fiddleheads or croziers from rhizomes, which is the name given to the fleshy underground stem. Foliage either ascends from the rhizome (Dryopteris, Polystichum ) or creeps from this underground stem (Adiantum, Dennstaedtia).
The frond refers to the entire leaf structure including the stipe (the leaf stalk or petiole which rises from the rhizome) and the blade which includes the pinna (leaflets) that are patterned along on either sides the rachis (upper stem ). Each pinna has its own rachis. Some of the pinna are very simple (undivided) and some are divided in multiple segments or pinnules.
The most commonly cultivated ferns are in the genera Adiantum, Athyrium, Dryopteris and Polystichum. A stand of Maidenhair fern, Adiantum pedatum when provided with a moisture retentive soil is a vision to behold all summer. Its delicate green leaflets are set off by almost black stems. I am trying it in a shady container this season.
Athyrium is a huge genus with over 180 species and hybrids, including the cultivar ‘Applecourt’, pictured above. Many are familiar with the Japanese Painted Fern, Athyrium niponicum pictum. Although it can be forgiving of drier soil, an even source of moisture will provide a steady supply of new fronds all summer providing a more luxurious show. The selection ‘Regal Red’ has an especially striking red color contrast, ‘Pearly White’ adds a silver glow to the shade garden, and ‘Godzilla’, a new hybrid, is reported to reach epic proportions, growing to 3’ tall and up to 6’ across in the right conditions.
This is the first year we are growing Athyrium otophorum, aka Eared Lady Fern, and I am delighted with how well it is doing. A continuous succession of lime green fronds with contrasting burgundy stipes have added a freshness to the garden, and she looks great near golden leaved plants. I would be neglectful not to mention the hybrid Athyrium ‘Ghost’ (a cross between lady fern, A. flelix-femina and painted fern A. niponicum pictum). This fern is a true garden survivor, standing 2’ tall and holding its own next to a vigorous Hosta ‘Komodo Dragon’ .
Dryopteris, or Wood Fern, generally enjoys a moist rich soil, but I have grown D. erythrosora (Autumn Fern) in average to dry conditions and it hasn’t disappointed. D. erythrosora ‘Brilliance’ provides a bronzy copper color with its new emerging foliage. D. x australis aka Dixie Wood Fern can grow to an impressive 4-5’ tall but needs consistent moisture to achieve that stature. Dryopteris tokyoensis, another fern that is very easy to keep happy, produces erect fronds 2-3’ , forming a lovely vase shape.
Many species in the genus Polystichum have leathery leaves and tend to be evergreen. P. acrostichoides, commonly called Christmas Fern sends forth 1-2’ arching forest green fronds from multiple crowns. Another unfussy fern, tolerating dryish soil although it would love to unfurl in rich moist loam is P. polyblepherum aka Japanese Tassel Fern. It boasts lustrous dark green 1-2’ arching evergreen fronds. Korean Rock Fern, P. tsus-simense is a diminutive semi-evergreen species for rocky crevices, and it tolerates drier soil that has been amended with rich humus.
Don’t have any room for ferns in your shade bed? Why not try them in shady planters? Last year’s hit was Autumn Fern with Heuchera and Black Mondo Grass. Above is a just planted shot of a cast stone urn with Maidenhair Fern, Begonia grandis and silvery Sansevieria and Dichondra, as seen above.
If you are interested to discover more, let me direct you to a few resources: The American Fern Society, as well as my bible for ferns, John Mickel’s Ferns for American Gardens . A handy pocket guide for casual identifying is the Peterson Field Guide: Ferns.
Here is our current fern listing. Have any suggestions on special ferns to try?