Native ferns are phenomenal plants for our Glen Echo gardens. Imagine the beauty of a fern glade, a place where the delicate textures, distinctive forms, and brilliant green colors carpet the earth while providing cover for wildlife as well as nesting sites for birds. Ferns are often found in moist, shady areas, and most ferns have adapted so that they have the ability to inhabit a vast array of exposures, soils, and moisture levels. In Glen Echo, ferns are ideal for shade gardens where they will make you feel cool on a hot, sunny summer day.
Ferns are ancient plants that were once dominant in forests. They do not have flowers, fruits or seeds. Rather, they reproduce by spores which are typically found on the underside of the fertile leaves and are dispersed by wind. Newly developing fern leaves are known as fiddleheads. Some can be eaten but only after special preparations. Fern leaves are known as fronds and they usually have finely divided leaves and leaflets.
Perhaps the most beloved of all ferns is the maidenhair (Adiantum pedatum), also called the five finger maidenhair. Its delicate, light, airy texture created by swirling fronds atop gorgeous, shiny purple-black stems have a stunning appearance. I can think of no plant more prized or more graceful for the shade garden. To grow well, a maidenhair fern needs moist, humus-rich, well-drained soil in partial shade – do not plant this in a sunny location. The plants will grow approximately 12 to 24” tall and 12” wide. It may be slow to get started but water it well and be patient for its rewards are worth the wait.
Another highly sought-after native plant is the cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) which is known for its robust growth and showy cinnamon colored fertile fronds. First the erect fertile fronds are green but soon turn a beautiful rusty red color followed by the emergence of bright emerald green sterile fronds that can get up to 4’ tall. These plants grow well in light shade, moist conditions, and acidic soil and are rarely sought after by deer. In the garden, cinnamon ferns can be arranged in drifts or as single specimens depending on the space available.
An edible, stout, robust fern, known as the ostrich or fiddlehead fern (Matteucia struthiopteris), makes itself at home in this area. The sterile fronds are large, reaching 3’ or more, and arch gently like ostrich feathers as they move gracefully in the wind. Ideally, these plants like damp shade but are able to withstand a variety of conditions. Plant them away from areas of heavy wind so that the leaves are not damaged. If given a rich soil and plenty of moisture, an ostrich fern will happily spread. The young fiddleheads are edible and after cooking (never eat them raw) have an earthy, nutty flavor somewhat like asparagus. They are eaten in Japan where they are called “kogomi”.
If your garden has a very wet area, try growing the sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis). It is an excellent, bold-textured fern for rain gardens, ponds, or stream-side plantings. Its name, sensitive fern, is derived from the fact that the sterile fronds have an immediate color change to brown as soon as the first frost hits in autumn. Another interesting feature is that the fertile fronds which appear in late summer, although dead, remain upright through the winter. Plant height is variable from 1 to 3’ depending on the conditions.
If you want a low growing textural ground cover in shade, try planting the hay scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula). These plants spread quickly and can be aggressive. The crushed fronds smell like newly mown hay. Plants grow to 1-2’ tall and 2-3’ wide and do best in partial sun to shade with evenly moist soil. Hay scented fern is excellent for naturalizing in shade gardens or wild areas where it can provide essential cover for woodland animals.
I have selected some of my favorite native ferns that have done well in garden cultivation. Often people struggle to think of hardy perennial plants for their shade gardens. Ferns should rise to the top of the list since they offer exquisite textures, appealing growth habits, and multiple shades of green.