A gardening friend of mine, well-acquainted with my passion for fiddleheads and fronds, delights in teasing me. “Of course ferns are easy to grow,” he says, “but why would you?”
If, like my friend, you think gardens are all about flowers, you might agree with him. Among the most ancient of plants, ferns reproduce from spores not seeds. With no need for pollinators, they have no reason to flower. However, if you’re moved by texture and form and appreciate plants that ask nothing more than the right spot and a bit of organic matter mixed into the soil, ferns are for you.
Like other perennials, ferns come in a myriad of forms, shapes, sizes and textures. There are well-behaved ferns with vase-like shapes that stay where you put them, and there are running ferns that can happily form a groundcover. Most ferns are at home in shady woodland settings, but some species grow in rocky soil and tolerate quite a bit of sun. One of our most beautiful natives, Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), tolerates full sun with sufficient moisture and is often seen growing in ditches.
Some ferns go dormant in winter, while others are evergreen. The beautiful dark green Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) was used for holiday decorations by Colonial Americans. Possibly the easiest fern to grow in our area, Christmas Fern is remarkably drought tolerant. The tallest (up to 5 feet) of our evergreen Southeast natives, the Dixie Wood Fern (Dryopteris x australis), is majestic and undemanding.
Several non-native ferns are also excellent choices to brighten the winter garden. Japanese Holly Fern (Cyrtomium falcatum) has wide, bright-green pinnae and an arching habit that give it a shrub-like appearance. Japanese Tassel Fern (Polystichum polyblepharum) is a crown-shaped fern perfect for large containers.
Even among passions there has to be a favorite, and mine is the Autumn Fern (Dryopteris erythrosora). This regal, vase-shaped fern goes far beyond green. The fronds emerge a beautiful bronze color with shades of pink and copper before aging to green. While our native evergreen ferns tend to flatten out as winter progresses, and the other non-natives look a bit ragged by spring, the Autumn Fern remains upright and attractive. Never needing irrigation once established, it provides a beautiful backdrop for hellebores and other winter bloomers.
Why plant ferns? For me the question is why would any gardener live without them?
Featured image – JC Raulston Arboretum
Dale Batchelor is the founder of Gardener by Nature LLC, a company offering garden consultation, design and management services and gardening classes. Her display garden, co-created and tended with her husband, John L. Thomas, is a certified National Wildlife Federation Backyard Habitat and recognized by the North Carolina Native Plant Society as a native plant habitat.