Ferns will soften your gardens with a sense of graceEveryone who spends time in the garden can vouch for the desire to have plants that are easy to care for and free of maintenance. One of the best plants I have found, and have often taken for granted, are the family of ferns. They are beautiful, graceful, lush and hardy for our area. They also bring a touch of that tropical feel to your design.
By: John Zvirovski, The Jamestown Sun
Everyone who spends time in the garden can vouch for the desire to have plants that are easy to care for and free of maintenance. One of the best plants I have found, and have often taken for granted, are the family of ferns. They are beautiful, graceful, lush and hardy for our area. They also bring a touch of that tropical feel to your design.
Ferns have been around for years. In fact, they date back to as far as 360 million years ago. There are many fossil records that have recorded this data and it is absolutely amazing to me that this plant family continues to thrive through all the changes in evolution. The fern family contains nearly 12,000 different species of plants.
Most of us think of ferns as a woodland plant that thrives in shade and moist, fertile soils. Ferns are actually quite diverse in their requirements to thrive depending on their type. Some will thrive in the woodland setting, where others do best in the crevasses of rocky cliffs that collect the rainfall. Others do well in the tropics and some don’t even require soil in which to grow.
Ferns are one of the few plants that do not flower or produce seed. Instead of seeds, they produce spores on the underside of the leaves that emit a dust, which will produce a new plant in the right conditions. Many times I have heard people comment that they thought the brown spores on the leaves were actually insects.
Ferns consist of three main parts: large leaves that produce spores, medium-sized leaves that don’t produce spores and the roots.
Most ferns grow from a central crown that is at ground level. Every spring, small round leaf buds will form and begin to unfurl when the temperatures rise. These new leaves actually unroll as they mature to form the leaf itself. Before they are mature, these curled leaves are known as fiddleheads, because of their shape. In some species these fiddleheads are harvested and used as a vegetable, but make sure to use the correct species such as the ostrich or cinnamon fern or you might ingest one of the few that are poisonous, such as the bracken fern. As they mature, most produce ‘runner roots’ that are sent out from the main plant to produce new plants that form close to the main plant. In most cases, this is the process of watching a fern patch increase in size. If they get enough water, they will even grow in full sunlight, but most prefer cool, moist and shady locations.
In our region there are many different types that can be found, which will come up from one year to the next. Some of these types are the northern maidenhair fern, the medium-sized lady fern, the silver- and purple-tinted Japanese painted fern, the silvery ghost fern, the cinnamon fern and the popular ostrich fern. I enjoy trying a variety of fern types of various colors to add additional interest to the landscape.
Many times fern leaves look very good mixed with fresh-cut flowers in a vase. Florists continue to use the ever-popular leather-leaf fern in most of their arrangements and sometimes add a few different varieties for contrast. In the florist trade, this crop of ferns is a hot commodity and creates a decent business throughout the world.
Other ferns we are less familiar with are ones such as the Australian tree fern. This fern actually resembles a tree and can reach heights of 20-25 feet creating leaves that span up to 8-10 feet long. As they mature, they create a trunk as the lower leaves die off and the new ones form above. They take on a palm-tree shape in time. They grow best in the tropics and are considered nearly invasive in the state of Hawaii, where they grow extensively in the rain forests. To walk beneath these ferns almost makes you feel like an ant due to their sheer size and grandeur.
Another fern type we are less familiar with is the staghorn fern. It has gray, fuzzy leaves that are broad and less dainty than most other ferns. It also grows without soil and is an epiphyte, or air plant. In the hot humid regions of the world, these typically grow in the trees and can create a ball of leaves anywhere from one to six feet across. Many people who grow these in the warmer states, usually have them hanging from a chain in the trees. They are quite stunning to see a healthy and mature one in all their glory.
Many ferns have the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil and filter the air’s impurities. Other fern types, such as the brake fern, can absorb arsenic from the soil. Anything that assists in purifying the air and soil around us is very welcome in my garden. After all, as gardeners, we are prone to clean the environment, expand on nature and add some color to our lives.
If you are looking for an easy plant to grow, especially for those ‘hard to grow’ areas in the shady parts of your yard, try one or more of the selections of ferns available for our region. Not only do they enjoy cool, damp and shady areas, they are also unaffected by the slugs that attack so many other shade-loving plants. They can sure add a nice graceful texture to the garden and assist in cleaning our air at the same time. Definitely a plant that will make you a winner in all senses of the word!