Deep shade presents a challenge in finding blooming perennials. We depend on foliage colors and textures
for a rich, varied tapestry. Autumn Fern (Dryopteris erythosora) and Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium nipponicum ‘Pictum’) add rich color to their fine textured fronds. The membership of The Perennial Plant Association has voted to name Anthyrium nipponicum ‘Pictum’ (Japanese Painted Fern) as their 2004 Perennial Plant of the Year. This is the first fern to be so honored. This is one great plant! The bold textured Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia pensylvanica) makes a dramatic backdrop for fall blooming anemones, summer blooming Cimicifuga, or the arching variegated stems of Variegated Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum falcatum ‘Variegatum’)
Dry shade is a tough world to live in, but with the ever-increasing drought conditions in Maryland, it is a reality. Our native ferns have adapted well to this situation, sailing through conditions in which less hardy plants suffer. In mid-September at the end of the summer drought the only plants standing in my native woodland were the Christmas Fern-Polystichum acrtostichoides, and the Five-finger Maidenhair Fern or Northern Maidenhair Fern-Adiantum pedatum. There were other native plants growing there, but they were ‘flat’ on the ground. Only after the October rains did they ‘perk’ up. With only a well to provide moisture, I did not water the wooded area at all. Other native ferns include Autumn Fern-Dryopteris erythrosora, Cinnamon Fern-Osmunda cinnamomea, Ostrich Fern-Matteuccia pensylvanica, Dixiewood Fern-Dryopteris x australis.
With plenty of organic matter and ample moisture, the taller ferns will resemble a lush tropical rain forest. By layering different heights of ferns and mixing the bold textures with the fine textures, your landscape will be varied and interesting.
Many ferns are evergreen or semi-evergreen, such as our native Christmas Fern, Autumn Fern,. Dixie Wood Fern, and Evergreen Wood Fern. When you add the evergreen Bergenia, Helleborus, Heuchera, Euphorbia robbiae, and Tiarellas, your garden has interest 12 months of the year.
Korean Rock Fern, Polystichum tsus-simense, at 12 inches makes a nice edging plant in your shade garden. A front-of- the-border plant that adds fine texture that contracts nicely with the large bold leaves of hostas. The evergreen nature of this fern will add interest to your winter garden.
Ferns have outlived the dinosaurs, if you have seen photos of the rain forest in Washington State you can understand what our countryside must have looked like.
Mid-sized ferns will fill in the space in the middle of the border, mass an area with lush greenery, or offset a brilliantly colored plant. Northern Maidenhair Fern is native in Baltimore Country where I garden. I grew up with this fern and was always pleased to find this fern growing where Mother Nature placed them. Dainty and airy, this fragile looking fern is really a tough cookie. The stiff black stems emerge from the ground in early spring, fanning out to form fine textured circular fronds.
Lady Fern-Athyrium filix-femina is a fluffy, lovely native just looking for a new home. It has lovely lime green finely cut feathery fronds with reddish stems. The often finely dissected fronds unfold with abundant sporangia (spores develop inside spore cases called sporangia) on the undersides of the fronds. This fern is a fast grower, very useful as a ground cover and goes dormant in the fall. A new cultivar ‘Lady in Red’ has been added to our product line for 2003. This stunning new Lady Fern has a vibrant burgundy stipe (stem) creating sharp contrast with the gentle green fronds. ‘Lady in Red’ is also a deciduous fern that will keep growing during the growing season and take a rest for the winter.
Japanese Painted Fern-Athyrium nipponicum ‘Pictum” is an 18” oriental beauty that blends gray-green frond with wine-red stems. Slow spreading, its tri-color fronds emerge early in the spring making it a perfect companion for early bulbs.
Hayscented Fern-Dennstaedtia punctilobula spreads from rhizomes and is an especially lovely ground cover. At 3’ its height is useful at the back of the border with lacy lime green deciduous fronds that smell like fresh-cut hay if crushed or bruised. A rapidly growing native fern that is found through out our region.
Dryopteris ferns are a widely varied group. The copper colored Autumn Fern shows its colors when young and again when autumn nips the air. During the growing season, this native fern of 24” keeps its lovely dark green color. Dryopteris erythrosora is useful when plants are not yet flowering and color is wanted.
Fluffy, full, fine textured ferns will fill in the areas when the ephemerals (plants that are above ground for only a short period of time, many of these go summer dormant, escaping the hot, dry summer) go south. Mertensia virginica-Virginia Blue Bells, Dicentra spectabilis-Old Fashioned Bleeding Heart, Dicentra s. ‘Alba’-White Old Fashioned Bleeding Heart are some of the better known ephemerals. ‘Brilliant Autumn Fern’ has been added to our fern lineup. This new cultivar has beautiful coppery pink new foliage that ages
to glossy green. An outstanding addition to any landscape.
The large evergreen green fronds of the D. celsa-Log Fern and the D. x australis-Dixie Wood Fern, are in the tall 4-5’ range. They form a natural backdrop for your garden and being native they are a natural choice for your shady woodland garden.
Dryopteris celsa (Log Fern) is a semi-evergreen, fast-growing tough native wood fern. A handsome fern to use in a moist shady location.
Matteucia pensylvanica-The Ostrich Fern is a stately, upright 3-4’ plant resembling ostrich feathers. This native fern would be found in our moist shady woodlands. Growing by underground runners, this fern will help provide erosion control. For a truly dramatic effect, try Ostrich Fern. In swampy areas, this fern will tolerate a good amount of sun. Given the perfect conditions, this fern will top out at 6’ and spread into an impressive clump. Fertile fronds arise in the center, providing a decorative touch; this fern does not spread by spores unlike most ferns. The dried fertile fronds can be used in dried arrangements and especially at Christmas, used in fresh wreaths and centerpieces. The glossy green, deciduous fronds form a vase-like crown, which surrounds the fertile ones, and can be used in cut arrangements.
Osmunda cinnamomea-Cinnamon Fern and O. regalis-Royal Fern are native ferns in the 3-4’ range. The fronds of these two ferns would be considered lacy instead of feathery, a different texture to consider using. Cinnamon Ferns will turn lovely rich brown in the fall, and their fertile fronds look like a stick of cinnamon. Royal Ferns have a regal look that can be incorporated into a more formal landscape design.
Probably the most recognized fern that I know of is the Christmas Fern-Polystichum acrostichoides. Looking like a Boston Fern in the wooded landscape, this evergreen, native fern showed how very tough it is this summer with our terrible drought conditions. One story about the common name is that the pinnules (a division of the pinna-a division of the blade-kind of like a leaflet) look like Christmas stockings that are left out on Christmas Eve. I like that story! This fern can be used in cut flower arrangements instead of the Boston Ferns that florist use. This fern should be at the top of everyone’s list for dry shade.
Some of our most interesting ferns were collected in other countries. Polystichum tsus-simense; Korean Rock Fern and Thelpteris decursie-pinnata; Japanese Beech Fern are two of the most useful and adaptive that come from Asia. Other countries collect our plants and are quite excited about our exotic natives. There are many cultivars of our native ferns selected for a difference of shape, color, or habit. Some are use as parents in hybridizing. Dixie Wood Fern is a cross between Log Fern and the Southern Wood Fern. Polystichum offers us both our native Christmas Fern and the Asia native Korean Rock Fern.
All in all, the fern family, Polypodiaceae (Polypody Family) is a diverse and varied family. Like a true family, there are short and tall, skinny and fat, something for everyone!