Ferns: Shady Characters


Ferns: Shady Characters

October 18, 2001

Ferns have been around for millions of years. To become familiar with the cultural requirements of each one of these “primitive” nonflowering plants would take almost as long. And though I can’t claim to know all 12,000 fern species personally, I can tell you one thing: So far, I’ve never met a fern I didn’t like.     

Still, that’s not to say I won’t play favorites. The 1- to 3-foot-tall lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina), is a classic. The silvery, maroon-veined fronds of the Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’), put most flowers to shame. As for evergreens, I’m partial to the furl of Christmas ferns (Polystichum acrostichoides). And, luckily, all three thrive in at least Zones 4 to 8. Though tidy gardeners consider it invasive, I’m also crazy for the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), hardy in Zones 2 to 6. Its fertile fronds are lush in summer and decorative when they turn brown in winter. But the giant chain fern (Woodwardia fimbriata), is the one that got away. It’ll grow to 6 feet tall — just not in my Maryland backyard. So if you live in the Pacific Northwest, think of me when you plant one.     

Despite their shade-loving reputation, most ferns don’t like being planted in a black hole. Generally, they prefer partial shade and moist, humus-rich soil — with plenty of compost dug in. And don’t be intimidated: The tricky part isn’t growing them, but learning the lingo (sorus and spore instead of fruit and seed, fronds instead of leaves). Check out the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s fern guide: It has a glossary, growing tips on ferns for every climate, and good plant sources. By fall or spring, you’ll be ready to plant.