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 flowers — and 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
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.
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
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 .
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
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
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, 25º F, it is worth every
effort to pamper growth especially where it can drape over a wall as a focal
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.
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