Sunday, June 17, 2018

Ferns Part 2 – More Fabulous Ferns from Sun to Shade

by Catherine Kavassalis

Ferns add wonderful texture to the tapestry of your garden. Weave them in amongst your perennials or give them special places to showcase their grace and elegance. 

In northern temperate regions consider an easy to grow species like: Lady fern Athyrium filix-femina, the evergreen Christmas fern Polystichum acrostichoides, or a stately Wood fern like Drypoteris goldiana (seen below), the pretty Bulblet fern Cystopteris bulbifera, or one of our ‘flowering’ ferns like the Royal fern Osmunda regalis. With dozens and dozens of choices, the possible compositions with your other plants are endless.

While many temperate ferns prefer woodland conditions (e.g. part shade), they are adaptable. The rule of thumb is more sun, more moisture. Thus something like Sensitive fern, Onoclea sensibilis, is the happiest dancing along riverbanks in dappled sun, playing peasant beside the aptly named Royal fern, Osmunda regalis. In drier conditions, they need shade. Onoclea will cope with my fast draining sandy soil only in full shade with some supplemental watering.

Both Sensitive and Royal fern are dimorphic, having fertile fronds that are very different in appearance. They are sometimes called ‘flowering’ ferns. While Onoclea produces beautiful black beads on its fertile fronds, Osmunda sends up architecturally beautiful stems bearing wrinkled golden brown sori. 

Related to Onoclea, the Ostrich fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, also produces ‘blooms’ of dimorphic fronds that can provide a wonderful vertical backdrop to a perennial bed. It can enchant a dark corner but also withstand full sun, if moisture is sufficient. 

Ostrich Ferns massed with hosta. Private garden Mississauga, ON.

 Ostrich Ferns form a backdrop for hosta. Private garden Mississauga, ON.

Ferns are one of the perennials that form a backdrop for this pond on the Toronto Islands.

Maidenhair fern with their dark stems.

A closer look at Maidenhair ferns.

Maidenhair Fern in a private garden.

Blue Cohosh, Caulophyllum thalictroides (left) and a closeup showing the rachis and lime pinnules.

Northern maidenhair fern surrounded by other shade perennials in Catherine's garden in Oakville, ON. Photo by Catherine Kavassalis

In my very dry garden, the extraordinary Northern maidenhair fern Adiantum pedatum spp. pedatum is the most admired by visitors. Though she would grow best in a moist woodland, a slowly spreading clump has established in my xeriscape that is visually stunning. 

In early spring, she unfurls her deep black rachis (stems) with lime pinnules (leaflets) in front of the purple shoots of blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) and it only gets more sublime as the season progresses. While she was at first in full shade, a neighbour removed a tree. She has continued to thrive in part sun with supplemental water during the hottest parts of summer.

A cascade of Little Bulblet fern, Cystopteris bulbifera in the sun.
   Photo by Catherine Kavassalis

The Little Bulblet fern, Cystopteris bulbifera, has tried to rival the maidenhair by popping up next to a display of daylilies and geraniums. In full afternoon sun, this pretty fern has created a picturesque landscape that draws the eye. 

The more observant will crouch down to find the treasure the Bulblet fern bears. Curled up on the backs of fertile fronds are little gems - adorable baby ferns that can be shared with friends or used to create new drifts in the garden.

Drifts of ferns can be lovely. Roy Diblik, landscape artist and author of the book The Know Maintenance Garden, created a beautiful design using two of my favourite evergreen ferns, Polystichum acrostichoides and Dryopteris marginalis (seen below). He recommends planting these in drifts with sedges: Carex pensylvanica, C. brevior and C. grisea. Geranium maculatum, Mertensia virginica and Caulophyllum thalictroides are suggested as accents along with a few inter-planted bulbs of Narissus ‘February Gold’ and ‘Thalia’ to create a striking low maintenance fernery. Pure genius.

Lady Fern, Athyrium felix-femina' Lady-in-Red'

If you are limited on space, a pretty Lady Fern, Athyrium felix-femina takes up little room but adds effortless beauty. From the native to the many cultivars, like ‘Lady-in-Red’ or ‘Frizelliae’ there are many variants to enjoy. Lady-in-Red with its splendid red rachis can be used as a vivid accent to bring out the reds in neighbouring Red barrenwort, Epimedium × rubrum.

Japanese Painted Ferns

A Japanese Fern mixed in with Heuchera and Hosta. Private garden Oakville ON.

Japanese Painted Fern in a private garden in Mississauga, ON.

Japanese Painted Fern, Athyrium niponicum 'Burgundy Lace' (left) and Coral Bells, 
Heuchera 'Berry Marmalade'.

Or you can go exotic and use an Asian Athyrium niponicum var. pictum cultivar with a matching Heuchera, and a contrasting Hosta for simple perfection in the shade. There are now many other easy care ferns from around the world on the market, like Autumn Fern, Dryopteris erythrosora, that will make you weep for more garden space. Begin with a few and soon you will be adding more and more. Ferns are simply fabulous.

Hosta 'Joy Ride' (left) and Japanese Painted Fern, Athyrium niponicum var. pictum 'Silver Falls'

There are now many other easy care ferns from around the world on the market, like Autumn Fern, Dryopteris erythrosora, that will make you weep for more garden space. Begin with a few and soon you will be adding more and more. 

Ferns are simply fabulous.

A Selection of Ferns for Moist to Wet Soils

Maidenhair fern, Adiantum pedatum
Native Range: North America, Asia 
Height: 30-75 cm (1-2.5 feet)
Spread: 30-45 cm (1-1.5 feet)
Light & Exposure: Part-shade to shade–a woodland fern
Zone: 3-8
An unusual deciduous fern with curved reddish brown to black stems and arching compound fan shaped blades. Stunning. Most lush in humus-rich moist soils, but it adapts to average garden conditions. Best in bright shade. It is also worth finding a spot for its cousin, the dainty semi-evergreen Himalayan Maidenhair Fern, Adiantum venustum. 

Hart’s tongue, Asplenium scolopendrium

Native Range: North America, Asia 
Height: 30-45 cm (1-1.5 feet)
Spread: 30-45 cm (1-1.5 feet)
Light & Exposure: Shade–on moist rock piles
Zone: 5-9
With its erect arching tongue-shaped leaves, this evergreen fern forms lovely clumps in deep shade. American (var. americana) plants are tetraploid and have smaller leaves than their diploid European counterparts. If seeking native species, verify the plant source at your local nursery.

Walking fern, Asplenium rhizophyllum
Native Range: North America
Height: 15-30 cm (6-12 inches)
Spread: 15-25 cm (6-9 inches)
Light & Exposure: Part-shade to shade–a moss rock fern
Zone: 5-8
This fern is characterized by pretty lance shaped leaves that arch over mossy rocks and sprout babies from their tips. An attractive colony can form over mossy rocks. Not for beginners.

Deer fern, Blechnum spicant

Native Range: Northern Hemisphere
Height: 22-45 cm (9-18 inches)
Spread: 30-60 cm (12-24 inches)
Light & Exposure: Part-shade to shade–average to moist coniferous woodlands
Zone: 5-8 
This fern forms neat tufts of  mostly evergreen leathery fronds that are simple pinnate. It spreads with creeping rhizomes. Erect fertile fronds form an attractive vertical spray surrounded by a fountain of sterile. Prefers acidic soils.

Spinulose wood fern, Dryopteris carthusiana

Native Range: Northern temperate regions
Height: 60-90 cm (2-3 feet)
Spread: 60-90 cm (2-3 feet)
Light & Exposure: Part-shade to shade–moist woodlands and conifer plantations
Zone: 3-8 
Easily grown, this is classic clump forming woodland fern. It has bright green lace shaped bi to tripinnate fronds that are a favourite of florists for greenery. 

Male fern, Dryopteris filix‐mas 

Native Range: Northern temperate regions
Height: 60-90 cm (2-3 feet)
Spread: 60-90 cm (2-3 feet)
Light & Exposure: Part-shade to shade–dense forests to open woodlands
Zone: 4-8 
This is an easily grown classic vase shaped deciduous fern. Can grow in average to wet soils. It is a nice filler plant. The narrow statueque 'Barnesii' would be a nice companion beside a woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) or Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginiana). 'Fluctuosa Cristata' (also called 'Parsley') is a ruffled, dwarf cultivar that can go into dry shade or containers. A heritage variety prized by Victorian collectors, 'Grandiceps Wills,' with its bunched tasseled arching fronds, is also worth planting.

This is just a sampling, the choices are vast!

This post was written by Catherine Kavassalis

About Catherine:

Catherine Kavassalis is a passionate gardener and conservationist. A scientist, educator and inspirational speaker, Catherine endeavours to stimulate interest and awe in the living world. She is member of the Halton Master Gardener group, the Past President of Oakville Horticultural Society and a former member of the Board of Directors for the Royal Botanical Gardens. Catherine loves to garden and has had her own eclectic organic garden featured on several tours.

For more on cultural conditions of ferns, visit the authoritative Hardy Fern Foundation 


  1. I love ferns, but I don't have any here at this house. Will be buying some or the new home. Thanks for all the ideas.

  2. They have their place in a garden and can be so lovely

  3. Grandiose photos of the many varieties of ferns. I should not like to miss them in my garden, especially on shady spots.

    1. They are a key part of my shady garden too Janneke.

  4. What a variety of ferns, Catherine! Ferns are simple plants but I think that they add loveliness to everyones garden. My mom has god many in hers, but there is one that shocked me. I am even considering if it is really a fern. My mother bought it on one Internet site, I am going to put a link if I find it or similar one ( I think this is it: ) . It says that it is a fern but it looks really unusual and leaves are pretty strange. However, I really like it! Also those which you showed on photos looks amazing! As you said, they are easy care, but simply fabulous!

    1. Asparagus "ferns" have that common name because they have fern-like foliage, but they're not really ferns. If you like an Asparagus fern, you also might like a Foxtail Fern:

  5. ferns are so cool! Painted ferns are my current favorite. Have you ever eaten fiddleheads from ostrich ferns? My dad says if you pick them young they are like asparagus.

    1. I have tried fiddleheads and they do taste like asparagus. I do grow Ostrich ferns, but haven't harvested any to eat mostly because I enjoy the way they look in the garden.


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