Ferns are fascinating plants that have thrived since prehistoric times; their delicate fronds are often found fossilised in rocks.
They have retained the ability to grow and survive where more flamboyant flowering subjects wither. Ferns are usually associated with damp, shady conditions, but some seem able to survive where moisture and soil are scarce. These are vascular plants, in other words they have specialised vessels in their leaves and leaves which carry water and nutrients; however they do not produce flowers and seeds. Instead spores develop in structures on the backs of the leaves, or on separate stems. These dust like spores develop into new plants when distributed by wind or water.
Ferns have inspired decoration, fabrics, ceramics, furniture and stonemasonry.Their subtle variations have fascinated collectors, culminating in the fern frenzy of the Victorian era when fern collecting was even regarded as a suitable activity for women to practice unaccompanied in an otherwise chaperoned society.
In the garden ferns are useful and versatile plants; perfect for shaded situations, especially in small spaces. Many are evergreen, providing year round interest in narrow borders, pots and containers and other situations where space is limited. Ferns associate brilliantly with wood, rock and pebble, suiting both naturalistic and contemporary design.
The leathery fronds of the Hart’s tongue fern, Asplenium scolopendrium, for example shine in shade, bringing bright emerald life to the darkest corners. A British native it looks as at home by a shaded pool as it does at the base of a wall or fence. It tolerates both damp and dry conditions and grows well on both acid and alkaline soils.The rusty spores, borne on the underside of the leaves, often result in offspring arising in the most unlikely placers.
The Japanese painted fern, Athryium nipponicum var. pictum is a complete contrast.T he finely divided fronds are patterned with grey, sage and purple, rather reminiscent of the plumage of an exotic bird. A deciduous fern it dies down completely in winter, re-emerging in spring.A lovely subject for a pot it is also excellent used as underplanting with the black-leaved Ophiopogon planiscarpus ‘Nigrescens’ and hardy cyclamen.It prefers moister conditions for best foliage quality.
Another native of Asia, Cyrtonium falcatum, The Japanese holly Fern is a wonderfully architectural plant that is also grown as a houseplant.Black leaf stalks carry bright green, holly-like leaflets. Evergreen and hardy it prefers neutral to acid soils, but is extremely tolerant.In the garden it is best to remove the old foliage in late winter as the new fronds unfurl.
Dryopteris ferns are commonly called the wood ferns, buckler ferns or male ferns. These are easy to grow, tolerant of dry conditions once stablished and the ferns to go for if in doubt.Dryopteris affinis cristata ‘The King’ is a wonderful shuttlecock fern which keeps its magnificent foliage for most of the year.The crested fronds are wonderfully intricate and an excellent contrast to epimediums, ajugas and other woodland garden plants.
Dryopteris erythrosora is sometimes called the autumn fern because of its coppery new foliage, at its best from late summer onwards. Almost evergreen the fronds are broad and shiny making it particularly effective in shaded situations.
On the other hand Dryopteris felix-mas, the male fern is usually deciduous. A British native its shuttlecock form is a common sight in woodlands and on shaded slopes and banks. It thrives in moist ground so is a good choice for the stream or poolside.
The Royal fern, Osmunda regalis is a definite moisture lover, at its best in moist ground at the waterside. Mature plants can grow to 2m (4ft) in height with an even broader spread even though they die back in winter. This is also known as the flowering fern because the spores are produced on separate stems rather than on the backs of the leaves.
Polystichum setiferum Plumosomultilobosom Group, the soft shield fern is one of the loveliest evergreen ferns with elegant fronds of moss-like appearance that become denser and more intricate as the plants mature. It is at its best planted with interesting pieces of wood and tree root, or as a subject for a pot in a shady corner.
The Korean rock fern, Polystichum tsussimense has a totally different habit. This tufted, compact fern has delicate fronds which grow in clumps, almost vertically. It is perfect for smaller, shallow pots and containers or to plant in narrow borders alongside shady pathways.
Most ferns are easy to grow in shade or semi-shade.In the open ground, cultivate the soil well and add plenty of organic matter: mushroom compost or composted green waste is ideal. Ferns do not require high nutrient levels, but a slow release fertiliser added at time of planting is beneficial.Ferns do need regular watering until they become established. They are remarkably tolerant in subsequent seasons, but the thin-leaved varieties dislike drought.
Ferns, like bamboos, tend to have difficult, unpronounceable names. Do not let that put you off! They are often just referred to a “ferns”, but once you take a closer look at these wonderful plants you will appreciate the incredible variety of texture, form and character they offer in the garden.
Receive free updates by email including special offers and new courses.