P90309+++++It could be either an asset or a liability. With few exceptions, ferns do not want to be too exposed to direct sunlight or wind, especially during warm and dry weather. However, as long as they get just enough filtered light, they can be quite happy in sheltered spots that are a bit too shady for other plants. Most like to be watered regularly, and perhaps lightly fertilized in spring and summer.

They provide neither floral color nor fragrance. They lack interesting branch structure and bark. Since they reproduce by spores, they do not even produce any fruit, either edible or ornamental. For those who do not know them any better, they might seem to be rather boring. Yet, those of us who grow them know how handsome their lush, finely textured and uniquely patterned foliage is.

Of the popularly grown ferns, only two develop ‘trunks’, (which are actually just clustered wiry roots growing downward through rotting stems). Two others are ‘epiphytes’ that naturally cling to trees or exposed stone, but in home gardens, are more popularly grown on wooden plaques. Most other ferns are terrestrial understory perennials that naturally live in the partial shade of larger plants.

Although mostly confined to the ground, some ferns can get quite large. Individual leaves, which are known as ‘fronds’, can get several feet long. Even before it develops a trunk, Australian tree fern produces huge fronds that can shade an atrium. Other ferns with smaller leaves can spread very efficiently, and can even become invasive. Fortunately, most ferns are relatively complaisant.

The two popular epiphytic stag-horn ferns have weirdly lobed but otherwise undivided fronds. Leaves of the odd bird’s-nest fern is neither divided nor lobed. Otherwise, fern fronds are intricately divided into small leaflets known as ‘pinnae’. These pinnae are neatly arranged on opposite sides of leafstalks known as ‘rachi’. Some ferns have silvery variegation, but most are rich dark green.

Ferns innately do well in pots. Boston, maidenhair, rabbit’s foot, holly and bird’s-nest ferns are actually excellent houseplants. However, Australian tree fern and a few others shed irritating fuzz that would be a problem in the home. Most of the popular ferns are evergreen. Many consume their own deteriorating foliage by covering it with new foliage. Some ferns need occasional grooming.

20 thoughts on “Ferns Are Shady But Cool

    1. Several native ferns grow wild here in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but just a few miles away, in the chaparral climate of the Santa Clara Valley, most ferns are exotics that were planted into landscapes. There is more diversity in the landscapes, but the ferns are so much happier here.

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  1. I love ferns. We grow many different varieties including Australian tree ferns. I guess our wet and less sunny weather here in Ireland provide them with perfect conditions. They colonise large areas by themselves in our stone walls and beds. I think their foliage is such a nice way to break up the masses of flowering plants and create a calming influence.

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      1. Quite a few people grow them here, mostly in the south part of the country. You have to fill the crown with some straw and wrap horticultural fleece around them in winter. They find it hard to cope with the combination of high moisture and cold here. I know some people lost theirs in the very cold winters of 2010 and 2011. Ours are in a very protected area and have survived one or two winters here so far.

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      2. How odd that the dislike the moisture. They dislike but tolerate the aridity here. The best ones that I know of are in the less arid parts of Los Angeles, or in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, which is pretty damp with fog.


  2. I am a HUGE fern fan! By now, I have amassed quite the hardy collection. They love the shady conditions I can offer, but yes – I do have to add summer water for them to really do well. It gets too dry here for most other than our native ferns. Which I have plenty of also. Such great plants!

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      1. Some more than others. Our native ferns are tough as nails – especially the Sword fern. And, they are evergreen and gorgeous! Such a valuable plant – one of my top ten, actually. But yes – I do water quite a bit, but it definitely helps having a really shady yard. 😊


    1. If they are native, why are they from Boston? Do you mean the native species of Nephrolepis from which the Boston fern was derives? I saw foliage from it with your cut flowers. I did not know it got no water. That is crazy, but I suppose I should not be surprised. Our native ferns get no water either, but they are accustomed to our climate too. Yours are obviously accustomed to your climate as well, and know how to exploit the humidity.

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      1. A Boston Yankee came down here, found the ferns and Shanghaied them to New England where they became the famous porch plant. It is crazy about the water though they live at the low point where my shell driveway drains – and they grow in the shell. I doubt I could plant these with any success.

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      2. Oh, that is not the source I was expecting. I figured it was from harvesting shellfish. Oyster shells harvested in Tomales Bay get ground up for gypsum. I remember seeing big piles of very perforated abalone shells that were harvested for the abalone, and then used to make buttons. they were piled high, as if they were not useful for anything. I don’t know what ever happened to them.


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