The return of the fern Garden: As ancient as fossils, as up-to-date as today's Web sites, these flowerless perennials have enthusiastic fans among sophisticated gardeners.


Ferns, at more than 400 million years old, are among the world's oldest plants; their fossil remains in rocks and coal record their ancient past. Yet today, in what is called the post-modern age, they are being bought, bred and planted with enthusiasm.

Numerous fern organizations here and abroad have Web sites on the Internet. Sophisticated gardeners, whose numbers are growing as the gardening boom continues, appreciate the lush background that these flowerless perennials give flowers as well as the texture of their foliage, which, depending on the species, varies from delicate to coarse.

The current interest in ferns reflects the trend in growing native plants and wildflowers. Ferns hold up well in flower arrangements, they're not very expensive (about $2.30 in a gallon container), and many breed readily. It seems fitting that, in flower language, these easy, attractive and reliable plants stand for sincerity. (Many ferns make successful houseplants, but not usually those that grow outdoors here.)

Ferns grow from the Arctic Circle to the tropics and range from thumb size to 100 feet tall. There are 1,803 species of ferns, many that thrive here and many that grow on trees or that live in lakes and ponds. Some are evergreen, and some are deciduous. In the Mid-Atlantic region, ferns generally like to be in the shade or semi-shade, especially on hot summer afternoons, and they like to be in damp, rich, woodsy soil.

The most sun-tolerant fern is Dennstaedtia punctilobula (hay-scented fern), which is a good ground cover, and Onoclea sensibilis, (sensitive fern) so called because it loses its leaves at the first frost. Hay-scented fern is worth noting because deer xTC don't like it. Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas fern), which has dark-green, glossy, leathery leaves, is thought by many local gardeners to be the most appealing of the ferns that thrive here; some say that it gets its name because it's evergreen; others say it's because there's a Christmas-stocking outline on its leaves. The leaves (called fronds) of most species are green, but a popular, exotic-looking one that does well here is the Athyrium nipponicum 'Pictum,' (Japanese painted fern), which has dramatic, gray-green fronds with purple stems that fan out and are usually no more than a foot long.

Another popular fern in this area is the Dryopteris erythrosora (autumn fern). Its young fronds are copper-colored and then turn dark green. It is evergreen. Athyrium filix-femina (lady fern) is deciduous, with lacy, upright fronds. Both are middle sized, about 2 feet tall. Adiantum (maidenhair fern) is the most delicate and dainty of ferns, with lacy, drooping foliage that is deciduous here. The tallest here is Matteuccia pensylvanica (ostrich fern), which has stately fronds up to more than 4 feet tall. It is deciduous, and its fronds are good for drying. Another tall favorite is Osmunda regalis (royal fern).

Ferns reproduce not through seeds but through dropping spores that are usually in sacs on the underside of their leaves. Some of their fronds are sterile and some fertile.

But in the Osmunda cinnamonomea (cinnamon fern), the spores are contained in the prominent central brown stalk that looks a little like a cinnamon stick. Spore-propagated ferns will be small for a while, just like seed-propagated plants, and then grow larger. In the spring, new fronds, called crosiers or fiddleheads, emerge from the earth in a tight coil and gradually unfurl into recognizable ferns. The fiddleheads of cinnamon fern are edible when sauteed.


Ferns are wild plants, and many are easy to propagate or divide, especially in the fall. Many species and varieties are for sale at area garden centers, so there's no reason to buy wild-propagated fern. You should not, of course, dig it up in the wild.

Suggested reading about ferns: "Ferns To Know and Grow," by F. Gordon Fisher (Timber Press, 1984); "How to Know the Ferns," by Frances Theodora Parsons (Dover Publications, 1899). On the Internet: American Fern Society, http.://www net/fern/

Pub Date: 6/14/98

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