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Fancy, Frilly, Fantastic Ferns

By Colleen

June 17th, 2012


                                                Ferns. Fancy, frivolous, and fantastic. (June 8)


Connecticut is blessed with many shady glades where ferns thrive. And glory be! The deer largely ignore these perennial, non-flowering plants.  Given preferred conditions of damp organic soil and room to spread, ferns are easy to grow in the garden, interesting in form, pleasing in the way they sway in the breeze. They therefore can be considered almost the perfect plant for the shadowed garden and the various cultivars are as distinctive as the pulmonaria, epimedium, heuchera, ladies mantle, phlox divericata and hosta which accompany them.

Here are some of my favorites:

Maidenhair, Adiantum pedatum is often referred to as the queen of ferns.  These native, slowly-spreading charcoal-stemmed beauties are desirous of evenly moist soil in light to full shade, and grow some 18 to 24 inches tall in sweeping drifts of overlapping, intricately-dissected fronds. Propagate by division and give them a wind-protected place in the front of the border. They also look spectacular grown beside waterfalls.

Autumn fern. I’m a latecomer to this gorgeous specimen, having only grown Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’ for the past three years. I couldn’t quite believe the catalog descriptions, so it took me a while to purchase my first one, but oh my!  The newly-emerging apricot-amber glow of the fronds is exquisite, the structure is tidy and the plant now hold a place of honor under my elderly, majestic sugar maple. At 1 ½ to 2 feet tall and wide, autumn fern is a small treasure. It will slowly spread by underground runners; it may be used as a dramatic ground cover.

Ostrich. In my early days as a Connecticut gardener, not knowing one fern from another, I purchased two of what turned out to be ostrich ferns at the Farmer’s Market. I grew them in pots alongside the garage the first year. They did well in that sunny patch, and so at the end of the season I transplanted them into the dry, half-shade Main garden, where they have since prospered, multiplied and often achieve three feet in height. Matteuccia struthiopteris is distinguished by its large upright form, and bears a fertile frond in late season. At four to six feet tall, it can be an aggressive grower; give it room to romp.  With age it develops “knobs” in the soil which can be lifted and potted.  Another interesting fact about this native fern…the emerging tightly-curled fronds are the primary source of that tasty early spring treat known colloquially as fiddleheads. Crunchy, with a flavor reminiscent of asparagus, these delicacies are best harvested at 6 to 18 inches tall and can be eaten raw, boiled, blanched or braised.

Christmas fern. These ubiquitous, almost evergreen (thus the name), two to three foot ferns populate the forest floor in many areas of Connecticut.  In April it’s a simple matter to dig and transplant them into the garden. Native Polystichum acrostichoides appreciates damp slopes, which makes them beneficial for erosion control. In the ornamental garden they delight in companions such as carex ‘Ice Dance’, gaultheria, and hellebores.

In 2004  Japanese painted fern, Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’ was anointed Perennial Plant of the Year by the Perennial Plant Association. This dainty, delicate, beauty enjoys woodland conditions, stands 12 to 20 inches tall with a weeping, clumping habit, and is hardy to Zone 2. One of the easiest ferns to grow, look for new cultivars ‘Ghost’, with a white cast, or the closely related ‘Lady in Red’, with reddish stems.

Sensitive fern, Onoclea sensibilis is not quite as desirable as the others listed above. Named by early American settlers who observed that the fronds died at the first touch of frost, this native fern attains a height of 18” to 24” and spreads quickly in moist conditions. It will become weedy if not watched, but has a place in the wild garden.

Give your garden a lift with easy, breezy, pretty ferns, the backbone of Connecticut shade gardens. Look for them at your local nursery, or online at




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