Georgia Gardener Newsletter Design Tip: July 12, 2007

Ferns in the Garden

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Shaggy Shield fern (Dryopteris cycadina) makes a great groundcover

Ferns are the direct descendents of some of the oldest plants on earth. Fossil records of ferns date back over 300 million years. After the demise of the dinosaurs (as well as about 75% of all species) 65 million years ago, ferns were the first plants to recover. Today, there are over 12,000 species of ferns, most being found in the tropics. However, there are numerous ferns that are hardy in our temperate climate, some of which are evergreen (*). I grow 17 species of ferns in my garden, 16 of which are Georgia natives.

In my opinion, ferns are essential to any shade or part shade garden. Even though they don't flower, their delicate appearance gives shady locations a lush and tropical look. Some ferns with their bright green or colorful foliage can even brighten the darkest corners. They are great companions to plants that have bolder foliage such as hostas, hydrangeas, solomon's seals, native ginger, foam flower and hellebores.

Despite their lush appearance, there are quite a few ferns that tolerate average or even dry garden soil. So long as the soil is high in organic matter, even ferns accustomed to swampy conditions often adapt well to a drier setting. There are even several ferns that can tolerate sun if the soil is good and the moisture is reliable. These ferns are noted by a smiling sun.

Finally, there are basically two growth habits of ferns: clumping and spreading. Of the ferns pictured below, the clumpers are: Shaggy Shield, Cinnamon, Royal, Autumn, Christmas and Ebony Spleenwort. The "slow" spreaders are: Lady, New York, Northern Maidenhair and Southern Wood. The fast spreaders are: Sensitive, Netted Chain and Bracken. In fact, Sensitive and Netted Chain make excellent plants for mild to moderate erosion control on slopes or the banks of creeks and ponds.

Ferns for Damp and Wet Soil

Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea)Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis)
Lady Fern (Athyrium felix-femina)Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis)

Ferns for Rich Soil

New York Fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis)Northern Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum)
Netted Chain Fern (Woodwardia areolata)Southern Wood Fern (Thelypteris kunthii)

Ferns for Dry Soil

Autumn Fern* (Dryopteris erythrosora)Christmas Fern* (Polystichum acrostichoides)
Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum) Ebony Spleenwort* (Asplenium platyneuron)

Note: Bracken Fern, although it's native, can be a thug in certain situations. It's also poisonous to livestock. However, its deep root system makes it extremely drought tolerant and able to withstand sun.

Evil Fern Monsters

Not all ferns are as soft and delicate as they appear. The Japanese Climbing Fern (Lygodium japonicum) and its cousin the Old World Climbing Fern (Lygodium microphyllum) are some of the most invasive plants in the United States:

Japanese Climbing Fern

Although I have never seen Old World Climbing Fern this far north, I am beginning to see Japanese Climbing Fern growing in natural areas as far north as Chamblee. This fern often hitches a ride in pine straw that is harvested in south Georgia and brought here for landscaping purposes. If you see either of these climbing ferns, KILL THEM IMMEDIATELY. They both have a kudzu-like reputation.

Japanese Climbing Fern Link
Old World Climbing Fern Link

Ferns of the World Botanical Garden

Located on the Panthersville Road (Decatur) campus of Georgia Perimeter College is the Ferns of The World Garden showcasing hardy terrestrial ferns from around the world, including many of our beautiful natives. This garden is free and open to the public year round. Click here for more information.

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