Ferns are are an amazing group of plants. They are among some of the oldest plants to still inhabit the Earth. Ferns grow in a variety of habitats, from the cold of the Arctic to the hot and steamy zones of the equator. They reproduce via spores and have neither seeds nor flowers.
All my life, I have been drawn to ferns for their attractive foliage. Their fronds unfurling into delicate leaves, their lacy foilage a vibrant hue of green. These plants have a grace to them that soothes.
I remember my first trip to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco — I was probably 13 or 14 — where I saw 8-foot-tall Australian tree ferns and thought, “Wow, these are really cool.” Imagine my excitement when two years ago I had the opportunity to go to New Zealand and walk among 30-foot-tall New Zealand tree ferns.
In our state alone we are blessed with at least a dozen varieties, of which several are grown commercially. While some ferns, once established, can be quite drought and sun tolerant, most prefer a shady and moist environment. Rich soil with lots of compost is a must. Some of them are deciduous and lose all their fronds at the first frost, while others retain their foliage all winter.
I love so many ferns that I would need to own a botanical garden to fit them all in — and another column just to write about them. But when space is limited, here are some of my favorites.
Royal fern: This 6-footer is a real stunner in my garden, with its upright growth habit and large fronds. It is a North American native and thrives in moist conditions. Give it some space, as it can get 3 to 4 feet wide in time. Because it is deciduous, you can cut it back and clean it up any time after the first killing frost.
Ostrich fern: This one is another monster topping out at 5 to 6 feet tall. Like the royal fern, it prefers moist conditions but has very frilly fronds — much like an Ostrich’s feathers. I have yet to find it a spot in my garden, so it might have to go in a pot temporarily.
Alaska fern: I just love the delicate texture of this small fern. Also known as soft-shield fern, it forms a mound about 12 to 14 inches tall and can grow to be 2 feet wide. It is evergreen, so looks nice all winter. In March, I cut off all the fronds and let it put on all new foliage, then it looks fabulous for the whole season.
Tassel fern: This is another evergreen fern native to Japan and South Korea that has very glossy fronds. It forms an attractive mound about 2 feet tall by 2 feet wide. The fiddleheads (the newly unfurled fronds) flip backward, forming tassels, hence the name. The frond midribs and crown of the plant have a hairy appearance, which adds some interest. Like all evergreen ferns, shear it back to the crown in March.
Autumn fern: New foliage on this fern has a nice copper-red color that matures to a shiny dark green. It grows well in deep to dappled shade and will tolerate drier soils.
Ghost fern: This deciduous selection has sturdy, stiff, silver fronds that make a nice accent in a shady bed. Pair it with some black mondo grass for some shady drama.
Head down to your favorite garden center and discover for yourself the amazing world of ferns and “frond-le” a few just for fun.
Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.