Fear Of Ferns

THE REAL DIRT

June 20, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Ferns make me nervous. I can't help it. I get squeamish just thinking about growing these primitive plants in my garden bed.

It's not their care that troubles me. Ferns can fend for themselves. They've managed for eons. Few plants are easier to tend than these ancient plants with the graceful, arching fronds.

Ferns can withstand monstrous abuse. Why, there are ferns around whose ancestors were trampled or eaten by dinosaurs.

Imagine growing the plants that fed the great beasts.

Me, I'd rather not.

I've been suspect of ferns ever since I saw "Jurassic Park." Did you see the huge ferns in that film? More important, did you see what was lurking in the ferns? A 20th-century tyrannosaur, or one of its toothy kin.

"Jurassic Park" scared me so badly that I can no longer admire a fern without first frisking it for predators.

Timorous souls like me aside, ferns have recently begun regaining the popularity they enjoyed in Victorian times. Their delicate beauty, versatility and low maintenance make ferns the perfect choice for today's gardeners, many of whom are rediscovering these and other non-flowering plants.

"Foliage plants are undergoing a renaissance. Ornamental grasses are in vogue, and ferns are close behind," says Judith Jones, owner of Fancy Fronds in Seattle, Wash., one of the nation's largest fern nurseries.

Increasingly, says Jones, homeowners are choosing perennials, such as ferns, over annuals to anchor their gardens.

"People want plants that come back year after year, plants that persist," she says. "Flowers are a mass of transient bloom. Flowers are good for the flick of an eye, but ferns are forever."

Never mind that ferns never blossom, says Jones:

L "People are starting to realize that green is a color, too."

Still, there are fallacies surrounding these 400 million-year-old plants.

"People think ferns need copious amounts of water, that they live in mud and that they only grow in the dark," says Jones. In fact, a number of the 10,000 species of ferns thrive in full sunlight, and a few even grow in the desert.

There are ferns for every gardener's need: shrublike ferns for foundation plants, and low-growing ferns for ground covers. There are ferns that thrive in both acidic and alkaline soils.

Some ferns are evergreen, and retain their leaves in winter; others are deciduous and die back each fall, only to send up dainty shoots called fiddleheads in spring.

(Boiled and buttered, fiddleheads were considered a gourmet dish until recently, when botanists found traces of suspected carcinogens in ferns.)

Some ferns are house pets only; others wouldn't be caught dead indoors. Ferns range in size from 6 inches to 6 feet.

Their common names are often more colorful than the plants themselves. There are ferns called ostrich, maidenhair and rabbit's-foot; cinnamon, staghorn and bird's-nest; licorice, fish-tail and parsley.

Some ferns have shiny leaves, or fronds, that glisten in dappled sunlight. Most ferns are green, or gray-green, with rare exceptions. The variegated Japanese painted fern has silvery-green fronds and maroon-colored stems. A newly discovered species from China boasts an orange-red hue that resembles a Hawaiian sunset.

Green ferns pale by comparison. But that is their strength, say fern fanatics.

"It's the greenery of ferns that's so fascinating. They really accentuate other plants," says James Caponetti, spokesman for the American Fern Society, an international organization of 1,200 members.

Judith Jones calls ferns "the backbone of her garden," a quarter-acre lot on which she has squeezed 300 ferns.

Occasionally, while weeding her ferns, she comes upon dinosaurs. But she just keeps weeding.

"My son plays with toy dinosaurs all over the yard. He moves them all through the garden," says Jones. "The dinosaurs have fights beneath the ferns: Ultrasaurus against triceratops.

"It looks like a living garden sculpture."

I can handle that -- as long as it's the plants and not the dinosaurs that are alive.

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