So much of plant appreciation is focused on flowers that we sometimes forget to appreciate plants that exist in our landscape as foliage. Native ferns are true non-flowering plants – they reproduce by spores, not by the seeds/fruits that come from flowers. The spores can be found on the back of the fertile fronds or sometimes on distinctive fertile fronds (think Cinnamon fern). In fact the arrangement of spores is so special and unique on different ferns that you can identify them from the patterns.
Lest you think that ferns are just blobs of green, destined to exist in shade gardens for the purpose of taking up space where flowering plants won’t bloom, let me introduce you to some of the marvelous native ferns that I have found in Georgia. The range of sizes, forms and conditions in which they grow will amaze you.
When it comes to design, I find it useful to group ferns by some of the special functionality that they can offer: wet, dry, sun, shade, evergreen and several other useful characteristics.
These are ferns that will live in standing water for at least short periods of time, some even longer. Sun tolerance increases with amount of water, and ferns like cinnamon and royal can get huge given enough sun and water. I’ve seen areas in Georgia that look like dinosaurs should be roaming through the place, eating huge ferns as they go.
Cinnamon (Osmunda cinnamomea), royal (Osmunda regalis), New York (Thelypteris noveboracensis), netted chain (Woodwardia areolata), lady (Athyrium filix-femina), and sensitive (Onoclea sensibilis).
These ferns can handle more sun than others. They still appreciate shade in the hottest part of the day in Georgia. Be aware that bracken fern can be very aggressive in a garden situation; drier sites help to control it a bit more. Southern wood fern is wonderful, but be sure to use the scientific name to get the right plant (common names can lead to the wrong plant).
Southern wood (Thelypteris kunthii), bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) and – with sufficient moisture – cinnamon (Osmunda cinnamomea) and royal (Osmunda regalis).
Ferns that stay green in north Georgia include the following native ferns.
Christmas (Polystichum acrostichoides), ebony-spleenwort (Asplenium platyneuron), marginal (Dryopteris marginalis), resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides), and rockcap (Polypodium virginianum).
Have a dry, shady spot? These ferns can handle periodic dry spells as long as they get adequate natural rainfall.
Christmas (Polystichum acrostichoides) and ebony-spleenwort (Asplenium platyneuron).
Ferns that fill spaces (runners)
If you’d like a fern to really fill in a space, consider one of these. Be aware that the more moisture you give them, the faster and further they will spread. But at least you’ll have plenty to share with your friends!
New York (Thelypteris noveboracensis), netted chain (Woodwardia areolata), sensitive (Onoclea sensibilis), bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), hayscented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula), and broad beech (Phegopteris hexagonoptera).
A handful of special ones
The maidenhair ferns are spectacular specimen ferns when you need something showy. Southern maidenhair (Adiantum capillus-veneris) needs constant moisture and good pH conditions (less acidic, likes to grow in limestone and concrete can sometimes substitute). Northern maidenhair (Adiantum pedatum) likes more acidic with even (but not constant) moisture.
The grape ferns are single frond ferns. Once you learn to recognize them, you may notice them more. Rattlesnake fern (Botrychium virginianum) and cutleaf grapefern (Botrychium dissectum) are two of the more common ones.
The lipferns are getting more attention these days as more of them are promoted in the trade as rock garden ferns with sun tolerance. Hairy lipfern (Cheilanthes tomentosa) is one that I have seen naturally in my area.
Landscape designers often incorporate foliage plants into design to give textual interest. We can do it too in our personal landscape designs. So next time you’re thinking about what to plant, think beyond flowers and add a few ferns into the mix.
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