Ferns are an Ancient Plant Group
Ferns are ancient plants that appeared 400 million years ago, long before dinosaurs and flowering plants. They reproduce with spores and don’t require pollination. There are about 12,000 species of ferns in existence worldwide.
How to Identify Ferns
Identifying ferns can be tricky! You must observe the shape of the leaves and leaflets, where the spores occur, how the fern grows, and where it is growing. On top of that, young ferns may not have characteristics consistent with mature ferns. Luckily, when we sell a fern we have it identified! If you are interested in learning more about ferns, how they evolved, and how to identify them, we have a great pocket sized book for sale in our gift shed “Identifying Ferns the Easy Way”.
While they may look a lot alike at first glance, there are differences between fern species. Some fronds are lacier than others. Some need more moisture than others. Most of them need shade, but a few will be OK in sun if you have enough moisture. Check your site conditions, then find a fern that will be happy in your landscape.
Using Ferns in the Landscape
Ferns make great ‘groundcover’ that you can use in place of mulch. Nestle your plants into an island of ferns, instead of surrounding them with mulch. Of course, this will only work in planting sites that are conducive to ferns. Most ferns require shade to part shade.
A bonus to using ferns in the landscape is that they are usually avoided by deer and rabbit. One less headache for you! Little is known in general about the wildlife value of ferns. Some insects do rely on them, and insects are important for bird survival. Ferns provide valuable cover for small wildlife, and help keep soil moist for creatures that live in the soil and for small animals that need cool shade — such as toads. On top of that, sometimes birds will use dried fern fronds in their nests.
Various Native Fern Species
Polystichum acrostichoides Christmas Fern
One to two feet tall and wide
Tolerates Rabbit, Deer, Drought, Heavy Shade, Erosion, Dry Soil, Shallow-Rocky Soil
This easy-care plant will thrive in most gardens, as long as the soil is well drained. One of the few native evergreens in our decidedly deciduous mid-atlantic area, it provides winter cover and habitat for ground feeding and nesting birds species, as well as supports several species of butterflies. You can use its deep green glossy fronds in winter arrangements. Tolerates full sun with enough moisture. Grow in dry to medium well drained soil, part to full shade. Forms a nice large clump over time. Can be used to help prevent soil erosion on slopes. You can even cut the fronds to use in flower arrangements.
Adiantum pedatum Maidenhair Fern
1′ to 3′ high and wide
Tolerates Deer, Drought, Heavy Shade
Try it in a container!
This plant with dainty fronds and contrasting black stems is always a show stopper. Delicate in appearance, it is easy to grow in average, medium, well-drained soil in part shade to full shade. The presence of maidenhair fern is an indicator of a rich growing site. In the wild you might find them along side hepatica, ginger, leeks, and dutchmans breeches. High summer heat may cause fronds to brown, especially in dry soil or too much sun.
Dryopteris marginalis , Eastern Wood Fern
Tolerates heavy shade, deer, rabbits, squirrel, wet soil, dry shade, clay
1′-2′ high, 2′-3′ wide
This evergreen fern forms a tidy little clump that tolerates dry shade once established. Easy to grow in average to moist, rich, well-drained soils in shade or part sun. Use in drifts or among other perennials. Try planting it near your patio or water garden. Attracts songbirds, as they will use the fronds in their nests.
Onoclea sensibilis – Sensitive Fern
1′-2′ high, 2′-3′ wide
Tolerates Deer, Drought, Dry Soil, Heavy Shade
Grows in moist soil in sun or shade, eventually forming a large colony. The more sun, the more moisture is needed. Names Sensitive Fern becuase it is sensitive to the first frost. Also known as ‘Bead Fern’ because of the bead-like spore sacs on the fertile fronds. This particular fern is one of the older species, at 55 million years old. Use it in your garden in a border or as an accent. Can be used in rain gardens
Osmunda claytonia – Interrupted Fern
2′-5′ high and wide
Tolerates Deer, Heavy Shade
This will grow in wet or dry areas and reaches two to five feet. It gets its name from the face that the fertile leaflets grow int he middle of the blade and’ interrupt’ the other leaflets. The fiddle heads of this fern are NOT edible. It is one of the earliest ferns, with fossil records dating it to 200 million years old, much before the time when dinosaurs went extinct. Use as an accent or statement in shade garden, plant in large drifts for special effect.
Matteuccia struthiopteris Ostrich fern
Tolerates Deer, Heavy Shade, Wet Soil
This lush, almost tropical looking fern grows in wet areas such as wetlands, woodland springs, and stream banks. If too much sun, or not enough moisture, the blades will brown in the summer. But don’t worry, the fern will be just fine for next year, its strictly cosmetic. Trim the brown and wait for cooler weather. Sometimes called ‘Fiddlehead Fern’ — the fiddleheads, or emerging leaflets, are often eaten in spring. Plant as an accent or filler or border.
Athyrium filix-femina Lady Fern
Shade to part shade; Can adapt to Sun with enough moisture.
Tolerates Deer, Heavy Shade, Rabbits
Lady Fern is found in forests in shade or part shade. And yes, even ferns can have fall color! By mid-summer it may look ragged because so many insects feed on it. (That’s a good thing!) Easy to grow and and spreads rapidly. Protect from strong wind so the fronds don’t break.
Dryopteris goldiana Goldies or Giant Wood Fern
Tolerates Deer, heavy shade, rabbits, wet soil
Prefers Bright Shade
This is the largest of the native wood ferns, and can grow up to 4′ in ideal conditions. This beautiful fern makes quite a presence in the garden as a stately and slowly spreading groundcover. It is named after Scottish botanist John Goldie — you won’t find any gold color in its dark lustrous fronds. Plant it stream-side or in a bog. It does not require wet soil — average garden soil is fine! Use as accent, filler, or in a mass.
Dryopteris felix-mas Male Fern
Tolerates Rabbit, Heavy Shade, Clay Soil, Deer
Easily grown in average, medium moisture, well-drained soils in part shade to full shade. As long as it is in moist soil it will be fine. It is not drought tolerant. You can easily divide this (and many other) ferns. It is called ‘male fern’ because of its vigorous growing habit. At one time was thought to be the ‘male’ counterpart of Lady Fern. However, ferns reproduce by spores, so are neither male nor female. It is native to both north America and Europe. This is an excellent choice for woodland or shade gardens. Beautiful as a specimen plant.