Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Evergreen Ferns

Autumn fern, Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’ on an icy January morning

Gardening should be fun and bring joy to our lives.  That is why I am always happy to share a plant that thrives in our climate, grows beautifully without a lot of fuss, and that won’t attract the attention hungry deer looking for the salad bar.  Allow me to share another of my favorites….

In late October our thoughts turn towards our winter gardens, and evergreen plants we can enjoy over the next several months.  Evergreen shrubs and trees may be the first to come to mind, but we may not always have space or budget to add evergreen woodies to our existing landscape.  Evergreen ferns offer another choice.  When autumn slips into winter, the fronds hold up well to freezing nights and shrug off Ice.  Brilliant green fronds peak out through melting snow, and the plants remain mostly upright well into the following spring. 

Christmas Fern, Polystichum acrostichoides

There are at least five types of evergreen ferns that perform well in our area.  Two of them are native ferns:  the Christmas fern, Polystichum acrostichoides, and ebony spleenwort, Asplenium platyneuron. You will commonly find these growing in nearby woods and may have them in your yard, already.  Both will remain green through the winter, but they will look a bit the worse for wear by February.

I want to highlight three other types of hardy, evergreen ferns, native to Asia, that will hold their color and presence until new fronds emerge next spring.  They are all easy to locate in area garden centers.

Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’

My favorite evergreen fern is the wood fern.  Their fronds are sturdy, bipinnate and very graceful   You may already be familiar with Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance.’  It was one of the first ‘colorful’ ferns when it was introduced more than a decade ago.  New fronds emerge copper, and slowly settle into a shiny, medium green after several weeks of growth.  New fronds emerge regularly from March through late summer.  The effect is magical, as many different colors and shades of copper and green mingle on a single plant.

Dryopteris erythrosora grows to 3’-4’ tall after several years, forming an ever-thickening clump of fronds.  They don’t ‘run’ or send up new clumps nearby.  Once established, they prove drought tolerant and take some sun.  Grow them on clay, loam, or in a container with potting mix.  Water new plantings during dry spells for the first year or so, and then they look after themselves.

Dryopteris labordei ‘Golden Mist’

I’m planting two new trendy Dryopteris ferns this year, Dryopteris labordei ‘Golden Mist’ wood fern and Dropteris wallichiana ‘Jurassic Gold.’  Both emerge with golden yellow fronds in spring and are said to remain evergreen.   These Asian ferns grow to around 2’ tall.

The closest native species, Dryopteris x. australis and Dryopteris celsa, will hold their color and form for a few months more, but won’t go the distance until March.  You will want a bit of luck finding them on the market.  They have a similar form to the Asian wood ferns, grow perhaps a foot or two taller, but don’t have the bronze or golden color on their new fronds.

Dryopteris x. australis

A second tough, evergreen fern with North American relatives is the tassel fern, Polystichum polyblepharum.  Also known as the bristle fern, this relative of our Christmas fern has distinctive silvery scales that cover its fiddleheads and stipes.  It looks furry and you just want to reach out and stroke it.  It is deep green with a silvery brown rachis.

Polystichum acrostichoides grows on the left and Polystichum polyblepharum on the right, as seen in late October.

This is one of the more interesting ferns to watch as its new fronds unfold, and it has tremendous presence and character.  Although newly purchased plants can live the first year in a hanging basket or 8”-12” pot, this fern eventually matures to stand about 3’ tall and nearly as wide.  Its rhizome forms a ‘trunk’ over time, and it remains well-behaved growing wider, but not sending out runners.  This fern has a more prostrate habit when young, and its fronds always reach out sideways as they arch.  It looks wonderful elevated in an urn or basket.  Give it plenty of root space in a pot, and plant it in moist, fertile soil in the shade. 

Polystichum polyblepharum

The third evergreen fern you will find locally this month is the Japanese holly fern, Cyrtomium falcatum (hardy in Zones 7-10) or Cyrtomium fortunei, Fortune’s holly fern, (hardy in Zones 5-10.)  I use these interchangeably, depending on what is available.  But I prefer C. falcatum for its glossier, more substantial pinnae.  This is another large, bold foliage fern.  It emerges deep green and remains that way through all types of weather.  Some fronds may turn dark by early spring, but new fronds are already emerging by then and you simply cut away old fronds as needed.

Cyrtomium falcatum

This erect fern forms a vase shaped rosette of once-pinnate leathery fronds. But each pinna is toothed and beautifully shaped.  A frond reminds me of a branch of Oregon grape holly.  This grows beautifully in full shade.  Grow in potting mix or in whatever soil happens to fill your garden.  Once established, it is reliably drought tolerant. 

Fortune’s holly fern has a softer look with smaller, lighter colored pinna.  It isn’t as leathery but has a beautifully dark rachis to contrast with the soft pinna.  It resembles our Christmas fern in form, and it grow to about 30” tall.  It is a forest fern, and can take some sun, if kept moist.  Both holly ferns may naturalize.  They aren’t invasive, don’t spread to form nearby clumps, and simply delight as good landscape plants year after year.

Asplenium platyneuron.

Deer rarely touch ferns.  These tough ferns hold no appeal for grazers, so you can plant them with confidence.  Most look refined enough to keep even the fussiest HOAs happy.  You will find some of these evergreen ferns growing in pots or around the Gravel and Succulent Garden when you visit the Williamsburg Botanical Garden this fall.

Japanese holly fern will grow in a pot or basket for several years before needing more space in the open garden

Reliably Evergreen Ferns that can be purchased locally:

Cyrtomium falcatum

Cyrtomium fortunei

Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’

Dryopteris labordei ‘Golden Mist’

Dropteris wallichiana ‘Jurassic Gold’ 

Polystichum acrostichoides (native)

Polystichum polyblepharum

Dryopteris erythrosora grows side by side with Polystichum polyblepharum. Last season’s fronds remains as new fronds unfold each spring.

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore

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