Ferns for the Spring Garden

Current Issue
GardenMap Online
About NWGN
Miss Snippy's Garden Guide
Stories by Season
Vegetables & Fruit
Water Gardening
Soils and Compost
Book Reviews
Garden Specialty
Garden Authors
Wildlife & Pets
Mary in South Africa
Our Advertisers
Gardens to Visit
Plant ID Quiz
Your Garden Tips
Design Tips
Weather Forecast
GardenMap Information
Oh, my aching muscles...

Ferns add understated beauty -- and color -- to the spring garden.

By Sue Olsen

Spring is the time of year when Mother Nature rejoices and lifts our spirits with new life in her precious kingdom. Our senses find beauty and joy in the simplicity, however fleeting, of a perfectly formed magnolia flower. We enjoy the fragrance from drifts of cherry blossoms framed by a dark blue sky and marvel at the urgency with which tiny snowdrops, crocuses and miniature daffodils push through the remnants of winter litter to display their welcome colors on the garden floor.

Elsewhere, while not as “showy,” plants famed more for their greenery appear, with maple leaves pushing open their buds and dropping little wafts of flowersand of course fern fronds begin their journey to adulthood with seemingly delicate young crosiers. While far more subtle, they offer a quiet beauty and in many ways (for those willing to take notice) enrich the garden palette as much as the more flamboyant members of the community. Their beauty cannot, of course, come from floral artistry since ferns are without flowers. It can, however come from form, graceful habit, and even color can add to the splendor

Emerging fronds remarkable for their symmetry quietly bestow a peaceful presence with woodsias, little treasures, among the first to announce the end of winter as early as February. There follows a procession of crosiers that reach peak production by late April. Watch as salmon hued adiantums uncurl, scaly cloaked polystichums and dryopteris burst forth and the briefly slender osmundas present their downy fronds.

Color other than comforting green is not often associated with members of the fern community, but indeed it is there sometimes as a temporary spring embellishment and at other times for the duration of the seasons. Of the latter, the most well-known is the widely acclaimed Japanese painted fern, Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’ which has been cultivated in the U.S. for many years. It gained national prominence when named as the Perennial Plant of the Year in 2004 by the North American Perennial Plant Association. It offers remarkable cold and heat tolerance while displaying one- to two-foot deciduous fronds in subtle shades of gray, and varying amounts of burgundy and deep green. Many named variants have made their way to the market, but all share a preference for light shade and well-drained composty soil. In time, they will spread (in a manner never considered to be invasive) and can be judiciously divided or allowed to form an impressive colony.

“The bright colors of flowers are admired by the least intellectual, but the beauty of form and textures of ferns requires a higher degree of mental perception and more intellect for its proper appreciation.”—Abraham Stansfield, voicing his opinion in his 1858 British fern catalog!

Athyrium otophorum, the eared or auriculate lady fern is a fellow Japanese import that boasts interesting color as well. While not as famous as its painted cousin, here is a reliable lime and raspberry fronded contribution guaranteed to brighten any shady woodland composition. In our benevolent Northwest climate, it is often surprisingly evergreen (unlike other lady ferns) and with its easy adaptability is highly recommended .

Dryopteris erythrosora, the autumn fern, is a commonly available species whose fronds are evergreen and tinted in new growth with bright coppery rose (autumnal) hues. Unlike the athyriums, these fade to a rich green as they reach an ultimate height of two to three feet later in the season. In addition, it is an extremely adaptable species and once established is remarkably drought tolerant (but like most ferns not designed for midday sun). Dryopteris lepidopoda, the sunset fern, is another favorite although definitely not as common. I’m not a fan of many common names, but this one carries a most appropriate moniker. The emerging fronds are dressed in the best of “sunset” colors ranging from orange and salmon through red. It too is evergreen, usually maturing at two feet. The colorful fronds emerge continuously throughout the spring and summer so that the plant provides a continuous bright spot in the woodland. It is magnificent in combination with warm-toned spring primroses.

For a larger fern with a somewhat similar impact, Dryopteris wallichiana, Wallich’s wood fern, will produce a five-foot evergreen bouquet with buttery yellow fronds that emerge enhanced with copious quantities of ornamental contrasting dark scales. Use it for a bold statement and frame it, where possible, with a contrasting backdrop of rock or wood. By contrast the little munchkin, Blechnum penna-marina will creep about, willingly forming an evergreen ground covering display of red and green foliage of six to eight inches. This is at its surprising best in a sunny site.

Finally, for a truly spectacular and colorful impact in the comfort of the warmer sections of Zone 8, Woodwardia unigemmata makes a marvelous architectural statement with arching bright red spring fronds delivering a tropical effect. It, too, is evergreen and while it benefits from a light protective cover when winter temps drop below, say, 25 F, it is worth every effort to pamper growth especially where it can drape over a wall as a focal point.

Beyond pigment color on fronds, many ferns emerge in a wrap of scales that give them a unique presence in the woodland. A close look at our common sword fern, Polystichum munitum reveals a silvery cloak typical of most polystichums in new growth. Dryopteris by contrast, with crosiers likewise covered with scales, are likely to be heavily enclosed in shades of gray and silver. Siting these plants so that they receive back-lighting at some period during the day enhances their “spring delight.” Look especially for Dryopteris affinis, D. dilatata, D. filix-mas and their myriad cultivars for sturdy displays.

Since many of these ferns are evergreens, it helps to remove the old fronds just before new growth begins. This can be done with a judicious pass with the hedge shears or household scissors. Do take care not to cut the crown where the growing tips are secured for the winter.

Hopefully, with a watchful eye and a little planning, this will help growers enjoy spring in the fern garden. NWGN

Sue Olsen is the author of The Encyclopedia of Garden Ferns, published by Timber Press last year, and proprietor of a fern nursery, Foliage Gardens.

Athyrium niponicum 'Pictum' - Author's photo

All stories on this website are copyrighted either by NWGN or the author, and may not be used without permission. For permission to use or reprint a story, contact us.