Surely few plants are as evocative as ferns. Upon hearing the word, I see a tropical wonderland filled with all sorts of green goodies populating the ground, and filling every possible spot of forest deadfall. They are a mightily adaptable group, too, occupying niches from deep shade with wet soils to full sun and drier conditions.
So popular are they that several plants are called ferns but really are something else. The Japanese fern tree (Filicium decepiens) is a patio tree one with fern-like leaves. Artillery fern (Pilea microphylla), too, resembles ferns in some ways, and is desirable for many other reasons. But artillery fern produces flowers, and this means it isn’t a fern.
Technically, all of the ferns are “pteridophytes,” a long word that simply means that ferns are vascular plants that don’t produce flowers. By “vascular,” we mean these plants have distinct tissues for carrying water and for carrying nutrients. Mosses, for example, lack these structures.
And these plants have been around for some time, having appeared first about 350 million years ago, during the period in Earth’s history responsible for producing enough plant tissue to make oil and coal.
The primary difference between ferns and other vascular plants? Life cycle. The seed plants, which include both the flowering plants and the cone-bearing plants, all have sexual parts. Ferns reproduce by aid of spores often seen on the back of the leaves (in many species).
This is a drastic summary of a very complicated life cycle system. But what do we care? We love them anyway!
A few ferns we love
Growing the ferns is dead simple if you provide three things: bright light, plenty of water, no direct sun (with some exceptions noted below). For the terrestrial ferns, provide a rich soil that drains well.
Here are a few favorites:
The sword fern (Nephrolepis exaltata), in many ways, started the fern craze of the 1890s. These plants were found in Florida and so popular in the big Yankee cities that growers in Philadelphia could barely meet demand.
Everyone had a big Boston fern. And why not? In many ways, it is the perfect indoor plant-and outdoor, too.
One day, though, amount the tens of thousands of plants, a grower noticed a more compact form, and actually named it Boston fern (N. Exaltata cv. “Bostoniensis”). Many other derivative varieties have appeared over the years, including the favorite “fluffy ruffle.”
Also worthy of note is the native Nephrolepis biserrata, called the giant sword fern; this species includes a variety called the macho fern, popularly used as a 3- to 4-foot groundcover. And before leaving the native ferns, keep in mind that common names of these ferns are wildly inaccurate. In fact, often the obnoxious tuberous sword fern, which has already invaded native areas, is offered for sale and sometimes called sword fern.
The staghorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum ) is endlessly popular and very easy to grow, sometimes as a big ball hanging from a tree, sometimes attached to a board with some type of moss that will retain moisture between watering.
The Australian tree fern (Sphaeropteris cooperi) can grow to more than 40 feet tall. Most of the time we see them in pots at about 6 feet or so; it’s very rewarding and easy to grow.
The bird’s nest fern (Asplenium nidus) requires loose, organic soils for success, and it is worth the extra effort. This 12- to 18-inch fern will show stress below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, but recovered quite nicely in my gardens.
Autumn fern (Dryopteris erythosora) earns the unusual name from the bronze color of new leaves; this is a terrific 18-inch plant for shade.
Wart fern (Microsorum scolopendria) is one of my most reliable low shrubs for shade and bright light. This 14-inch critter spreads, and will climb trees but is easily managed.
Crested bear’s claw (Polypodium mandianum) is a 3- to 4-foot, medium textured, scrambling plant with blue-green leaves and with little hairs around the leaves. It is ideal around water features.
Selaginella (Selaginella) is a genus of ferns with huge variation; some are blue-green, all are about 1 foot high.
Rabbit foot fern (Davallia fejeensis) will stun you with beautifully fine textured fronds more than a foot long; and this one requires soil fully dried out between watering, with very bright light including early morning full sun.
Finally, there’s pteris fern (Pteris alboliniata), a 24-inch plant that will take a little direct sun in morning or late afternoon.
There are far too many ferns for me to list or to grow. As usual, email me with questions.
My classes in plant ID, design, and using your Mac begin Monday, and you can get details at www.msadesign.com. Be there or be square.
And don’t forget you can always email your Design Pundit with gardening or planting questions.
Or questions about life, really: yourDP@msadesign.com.
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