Ferns are an ancient group of plants dating back about 300 million years.
They are most closely related to mosses and liverworts. They never
have flowers and fruits but instead reproduce by spores typically produced
on the lower side of the fronds or ‘leaves’ or on specialized spore-bearing
Do ferns make good garden plants?
Ferns make good, low maintenance garden plants that have surprisingly
few pests and diseases. Many ferns prefer light to moderate shade,
somewhat moist conditions and soil rich in organic matter. Ferns are adapted
to a wide variety of conditions–some ferns prefer dry rocky sites or wet
marshy conditions while others thrive in limestone-rich soils. There
are garden ferns for just about every condition you encounter in a garden.
In fact, there are over 500 kinds of hardy ferns that can be grown in American
Are there any evergreen ferns? That is, are there any that have nice green fronds present even in the winter months?
Depending upon where you live, many ferns are evergreen and add color
and interest during the winter months when most flowering plants
are dormant. Some popular evergreen ferns used in outdoor gardens
include the Christmas fern, Polystichum acrostichoides; tassel
fern, Polystichum polyblepharum; Scott’s fern, Dryoptris scottii,
and wavy-edged hart’s tongue fern, Phyllitis (Asplenium)
I have a native plant garden. Are there good native ferns I can grow in my garden?
There is an abundance of ferns for you to choose from. If you
have a low wet area, the cinnamon fern, Osmunda cinnamonea; royal
fern, Osmunda regalis; different species of Phyllitis and
might do well in your garden. The maidenhair ferns, Adiantum
peltatum and Adiantum capillus-veneris, are beautiful, relatively
small, delicate plants that are also used in moist shaded areas.
Suitable moderate to larger sized ferns include male fern, Dryopteris
filix-mas; marginal wood fern, Dryopteris marginalis; Virginia
polypody, Polypodium virginianum; the Christmas fern, Polystichium
acrostichoides; and broad beech fern, Thelypteris hexagonoptera.
The giant chain fern, Woodwardia fimbriata, is an attractive plant
often used in West Coast gardens. In sunny dry rocky sites, gardeners
may use one of several species of lip or wavy cloak ferns, Cheilanthes
Some species of Dryopteris and Thelypteris thrive in sunny
areas once established.
What ferns can be used to add more color in my shade garden?
There are many forms of the Japanese painted fern, Athyrium nipponicum
‘Pictum’. They have varying degrees of green, dark red, and gray
variegation on their fronds and, as a result, they are very popular plants
in shade gardens. The variegated holly fern, Arachnoides simplicior
variegata, has dark green fronds with a greenish yellow band running
along the center of the main vein. The young uncoiling fronds of the autumn
fern, Dryopteris erythrosora, are a beautiful bronze color and add
color in early spring. The black stems of the maidenhair ferns, Adiantum
species, contrast strikingly with the light green fronds. When present,
the bright cinnamon-colored, spore-bearing, specialized fronds of the cinnamon
fern, Osmunda cinnamomea, stand out against the large green, sterile
My garden is in a sunny location and is fairly dry. Are there any ferns suitable for these conditions?
Definitely! There are several ferns that will generally thrive
in sunny sites. If it is a dry sunny site, members of lip fern or cloak
fern genus, Cheilanthes, may be good candidates. The small
Asian fern, Cheilanthes argentea, is a beautiful plant with whitish
fronds that have striking whitish undersides. The native hairy lip
fern, Cheilanthes lanosa, and the wavy cloak fern, Cheilanthes
sinuata, are good for native plant gardens. Wetter sunny sites
may be ideal for the marsh fern, Thelypteris palustris, a spreading
plant that grows to 0.6 to 0.8 meters high. The golden-scaled male
fern, Dryopteris affinis, is a tall plant (about a meter high) that
is easy to grow. Another adaptable fern is the male fern, Dryopteris
filix-mas, with many selected horticultural forms available in the
nursery trade. The European lady fern, Athyrium felix-femina,
is also an easy to grow, common garden fern. This fern has many horticultural
forms principally with variations of the form and shape of the fronds.
Are any ferns prone to be invasive? If I plant them will they take over my garden?
The bracken fern, Pteridium aquilinum, has long, spreading underground
rhizomes that give it a fairly aggressive nature. This fern can be
invasive in disturbed sites including sunny locations. Also, the
New York fern, Thelypteris noveboracensis, is a common native fern
in the northeastern United States but it can become an aggressive grower
in woodland gardens because of its far-reaching underground root-like rhizomes.
In Florida, the Old World climbing fern, Lygodium microphyllum,
and the Japanese climbing fern, Lygodium japonicum, are invasive.
Is it all right just to go into the nearby woods or forest and dig up a few ferns for my garden?
No! You may be depleting natural populations of these ferns. It
is better to purchase them from quality nurseries that sell ferns that
have been nursery propagated and grown commercially. Nurseries specializing
in perennials may have 20 to 30 different ferns to choose from. Many
ferns can be divided and shared from established gardens. If a friend
has a shade garden with ferns ask if they will share plants when they are
moving plants or thinning out established beds.
Are asparagus ferns and sweet ferns really ferns? My local nursery sells both but they don’t look like many other ferns.
You are very observant. Neither of these are ferns at all but
are true flowering plants. The asparagus fern, Asparagus setaceus,
is a close relative of the edible asparagus and produces tiny white flowers
and purplish black fruits. The numerous leaves are very small, bright
green and produced on long branches. These branches or sprays are
often used in cut flower arrangements. The sweet fern, Comptonia
peregrina, is a small shrub native to the northeastern United States.
It is a member of the bayberry family. The tiny flowers are inconspicuous
as are the small fruits. But the leaves do somewhat resemble some
fern leaves. They both are nice garden plants.
Where can I find out more information about ferns?
The American Fern Society is the leading organization in North America devoted to ferns and fern allies. In addition, The Hardy Fern Foundation is another source of useful information. If you prefer books, two very useful works are: Ferns for American Gardens, by John Mickel, available from Macmillian Publishing Company and The Plantfinder’s Guide to Garden Ferns by Martin Richard, available from Timber Press.
Last Updated July 12, 2002
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