Six on Saturday: Unfurling Ferns

Southern Maidenhair Fern, Adiantum capillus-veneris, emerges with spring bulbs in this planter at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden

It started this week.  Not to be missed while mesmerized by daffodils and apple blossoms, the first tightly wound fronds emerged from the wet, warming earth and began to unfurl.

Spring begs notice.  It comes so swiftly and so silently that anyone preoccupied indoors misses much of this timeless mystery drama.  It is worth it to turn off the screens for an hour and nose around outdoors to see what has magically appeared since yesterday.

The ferns don’t mind cold wind and rain.  They methodically uncoil themselves whether greeted by sun or fog.  Their tight fiddleheads poke through the muck and encroaching weeds with the dignity and self-confidence of a Zen master.

Hardy, evergreen Shield Ferns, Polystichum, emerge covered in translucent scales. Native to several continents, this sturdy fern grows in a vase shaped clump to about 3′ tall. Grow in moist compost, tolerates lime-rich soil.

And I delight in them all.  Whether fiddleheads appear where I forgot a fern was growing, or whether they emerge fresh, and full of promise in the midst of a tangle of tattered, tired evergreen fronds, I greet them with joy and wonder.

Ferns thrive in our forest garden.  They are my ‘go to’ for solving problems small or gnarly.   Each one we add to the collection is an investment in both beauty and peace of mind.

You might think them fussy and delicate.  Oh no.  Ferns might grow with the grace and delicacy of a ballerina in mid-air, a hummingbird hovering over a flower, or a wisp of cloud in a summer sky.  But they are the elder cousins of the flowering perennials, tough, resilient and persistent.

Ferns grow on every continent on Earth.  You will find them everywhere from rain forests to rocky mountain summits.  Some will creep along tree branches, their roots sheltered only by moss.  I found an Ebony Spleenwort growing out of the mortar between ancient bricks at an historic church in Williamsburg.

When we wanted to stabilize a steep bank behind our home as we first began work on this garden, I turned to ferns.  I hollowed out holes small enough to just hold their roots, packed them in with a bit of compost, and hoped for the best.  They did not disappoint.

Deer rarely touch a fern.  They don’t like their texture or taste.  Deer stroll right past them, looking for a tasty flower or newly grown twig.   Rabbits and squirrels might seek shelter in a clump of ferns, but they won’t chew them back to nubs.

Ferns just improve month to month and year to year.  Clumpers grow broader clumps.  Spreaders stretch out their rhizomes and send up new fronds, weaving gracefully around their neighbors.  After the first flush of spring, most will continue to send up new fronds from time to time, renewing themselves through the long summer season.

If you’ve chosen an evergreen fern, they soldier on through frosts and frigid nights, sleet and snow, wind and winter sun, anchoring their bed and reminding you of better days to come.

Even without showy flowers, ferns offer interesting textures, colorful fronds and dramatic forms.  New for me this year is a Dryopteris wallichiana ‘Jurassic Gold.’  Related to my ever-favorite Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance,’ this new wood fern will unfold bright golden fronds.  E. ‘Brilliance’ sports bright, coppery new fronds each spring emerging from between older, evergreen leaves.  It has won my respect as it grows larger and better each year.  I’ve never lost one to deer, voles or neglect, and it grows well in partial sun.

Japanese Painted Fern, Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’ emerges burgundy and silver, turning more green as the fronds age.

I am also partial to the hybrid Japanese Painted Ferns, Athyrium niponicum hybrids.  Most sport deep burgundy stipes, and many sparkle with a frosted silver patina on their pinna.  They come in many color variations from burgundy and green to silvery white.

This spring I’m learning more about our native Aspleniums.  I’ve had Ebony Spleenwort around for several years now.  I rescued some that sprouted in the folds of Juniper branches, in the sun, and appeared to be growing out of the shrubs.  They have few demands, but most species in this group prefer more calcareous soils than we have in our area. That is an easy fix for a potted plant or ones grown in a raised bed. 

This year I’ve ordered Walking Ferns, Asplenium rhizophyllum, and Dragon Tail ferns, Asplenium x ebenoides.  Both will grow on thin, rocky soil and can spread themselves around by rooting where the tip of a frond touches the soil. 

There are many beautiful native ferns that crop up in our area.  The most common is the Christmas Fern, Polystichum acrostichoides.  Bold, about 2’ tall, its deep blue green fronds shrug off winter weather and may remain presentable for two years or more.  We also enjoy the Southern Lady Ferns, Athyrium asplenioides.  Its tall, lacy fronds grow happily in partial sun in our garden, slowly spreading a bit from year to year. 

Lower left: An established Christmas fern has a tangle of fiddleheads ready to unfurl. Above: Autumn Brilliance fern’s new fronds emerge bronze, and are a little more difficult to see. Both ferns remain green through the winter.

There is a hardy fern that will grow happily in most every part of our garden.  The only place I won’t plant them is in full sun.  I save the sunniest spots for flowers to feed our butterflies, hummingbirds and bees.

If you don’t mind a bit of fuss to bring more delicate ferns indoors through winter, there is an even broader selection of interesting Asian ferns to grow that may not be hardy north of Zone 8 or 9.

Maidenhair ferns, the Adiantums, are most likely to serve as a larval host to butterflies or moths.  If it is important to you to grow host plants for butterflies, you might want to grow A. pedatum or the Southern Maidenhair, A. capillus-veneris

That said, I found caterpillars eating a tender Lady Fern, Athyrium hybrid, indoors in late January.  The larvae turned out to be the Florida Fern Moth, which must have flown into the house and found my fern, laid its eggs, and expired.  I had never heard of a Florida Fern Moth before doing a little research on the mystery caterpillars eating my indoor fern in the depths of winter.

If feeding caterpillars isn’t high on your list of garden priorities, by all means consider growing any fern from any continent that will grow in your garden.  They are well behaved enough you needn’t worry about crowding out native species.  They grow into beautiful ground cover and will hold the soil on slopes or thrive in damp spots where other plants may struggle. 

So often you will find that a single genus, like Dryopteris, has species native to multiple continents.  They are fairly interchangeable, most enjoying the same characteristics with only subtle differences in appearance or cultural needs.

I’m expanding our fern garden this week, building a new series of stepped planting beds to fix an erosion problem on another section of our steep back garden slope.  Watch for a post about the project in the next few days, if it interests you.  Pots of ferns are piling up in my garage and more are on order.  As old familiar ferns spring back into growth, the time has come to construct the new beds and get our newest ferns outside to grow in these first exciting weeks of spring. 

With appreciation to The Propagator who hosts Six on Saturday each week.


  1. Interesting to read about these different varieties of ferns, and I didn’t know that some serve as hosts for the larvae of butterflies. The shuttlecock fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) has naturalised in my garden and is just starting into fresh growth. I was also recently given a Hart’s Tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium) and was encouraged to read here that they are fine with thin, rocky soil. I have a rubbly east-facing bank that is a real problem area – do you think it would be ok there? Appreciative of your advice!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sel, my favorite reference on ferns says this about your Hart’s Tongue Fern: ” …grows with abandon often in mortared rubble on antiquities, faces of buildings, and on chinks in roadside walls in Britain, Europe and beyond. …. should be cultivated, if possible, in basic soil with that magic ingredient of good drainage. It sounds as though your rubbly bank my be just the place for their happiness. If in doubt about the degree of light and other conditions, you may consider potting them (with a basic, rubbly soil, of course) in a pot and moving the pot around until you are satisfied you have the right spot. Then you could plant them, pot and all, or transplant out of the container. I am working from The Plant Lover’s Guide to Ferns by Steffen and Olsen published in assoc. with the Kew Gardens, which is a wonderful resource, as I prepare a presentation on ferns for a local gardening group in the fall. You are so fortunate to have the Matteuccia naturalizing in your garden. They are so elegant and enthusiastic when they are in a happy spot. I only learned a few months ago about ferns as a larval host- as I tried to figure out why a caterpillar was devouring my lady fern…. I hope you and your family have a happy Easter and make beautiful memories together.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s really good to hear, seems like the Hart’s Tongue has the perfect home on my rubbly bank where not much does well (with the exception of geranium Rozanne). Thanks for your input! I will look up that fern book, sounds good. As for Matteuccia, I do love it, especially in late spring/early summer, such a fresh green, and am frequently giving its babies away to friends as gifts. Happy Easter to you too.

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  2. I came in earlier today from cutting the dead leaves off Araiostegia parvipinnata and Blechnum tabulare and there was your post all about ferns, very much an enthusiasm of mine. I think there’s a tendency for people to write off the damp and shady bits of their gardens rather than seeing them as an opportunity to grow something different. There also tends to be a limited and somewhat samey range of ferns in most garden centres, you have to seek out the less common ones to get some real diversity.

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    • Your Araiostegia is one I just had to look up, Jim. What a beauty! That isn’t commonly available in our garden centers. I do have some footed ferns, perhaps this genus, that I bought as unnamed ‘houseplants’ some years ago. I grow them in hanging baskets that spend winter in the garage and summer in the garden. Their foliage is so lacy and their rhizomes quite interesting. I would expect the ferns available in the UK and on the Continent might be different in many ways that what is available to us. And yes, usually a very small selection in garden centers. I just located a supplier that ships a much wider selection bare root, and we have a few specialty nurseries that ship uncommon living ferns. Yes, you have to search them out. I’ve been collecting ferns here for over a dozen years now and I’m just having such a wonderful time watching old favorites send up their first fronds. In several spots, I’m finding ferns I didn’t plant that have come on by their own processes, which is very exciting, too. It is good to find another fern enthusiast whose eyes light up instead of glaze over when one mentions Blechnums and Aspleniums. I emptied nearly a dozen pots into my new growing space today and am very satisfied with the day’s accomplishments. It sounds like you had a good day as well. Happy Spring! WG


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