Yes, Fern, this plant is making a comeback

Coveted in 1800s, closeted in 1940s, cherished today

In The Garden

December 14, 2003|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

Ferns -- frilly, feathery, leathery, and even microscopic -- have been happily going forth and multiplying since the Primordial Ooze. But it was the Victorians who finally brought them to horticultural superstar status. Everyone who was anyone had at least one Cousin It-like plant on a pedestal. Some of the more smitten -- or competitive -- Victorians even built glass-enclosed ferneries that they crammed with the choicest specimens available.

In addition to being coveted houseplants, ferns were also garden staples. Frederick Law Olm-sted's 1861 landscape design for New York's Central Park included many hardy ferns. By World War II, ferns fell out of favor but now are making a comeback.

"Of our top 25 best sellers, five are ferns," says Tony Avent, owner of Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, N.C. "Five years ago, you wouldn't have had a single one."

Family of thousands

There are 12,000 fern varieties scattered over every continent except Antarctica. Some ferns (called xerics) thrive in the desert. Epiphytic ferns like staghorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum) cling to trees or stumps with their naked roots grabbing moisture and nutrients out of the air. Others originate in bogs and swamps. Some prefer snowy hillsides. Others grow in woods and along seasides. There are climbing ferns, tree ferns, filmy ferns whose leaves are just one cell thick and aquatic ferns, like the Mosquito fern (Azolla), the world's smallest fern.

"The plants are only about half an inch long," says Robbin Moran, fern curator at the New York Botanical Garden and co-author with Barbara Joe Hoshizaki of The Fern Growers Manual (Timber Press, 2001, $59.95).

Ferns divide very roughly into two categories: hardy outdoor ferns and tender indoor types. Most indoor ferns are tropical and evergreen -- like rabbit's foot fern (Gavalia mauricia) and bird's nest fern (Asplenium nidus).

"In general, the evergreen ferns are potential houseplants," explains Judith Jones, owner of Fancy Fronds in Gold Bar, Wash.

But while most indoor ferns are evergreen, not all evergreen ferns make good houseplants. For example, the Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is a cold-hardy native of most of the East Coast. With a beautiful frothing growth habit, it's been prized by florists since it's still lushly green in December and can be cut for holiday arrangements. Though evergreen ferns can, depending on native climate, be either outdoor perennials or indoor houseplants, none of the deciduous ferns survive for long inside. These ferns, native to colder climes (including ours), need a period of dormancy.

While the deciduous ferns don't offer year-round color either indoors or out, the process of going into dormancy can be a garden design feature.

"One of my favorite deciduous native ferns is Osmunda regalis [royal fern]," says Jones. "It turns lime, rust and red in the fall."

Additionally, there are some fabulous hardy non-natives like the Perennial Plant Association's Plant of the Year 2004, Japanese painted fern (Athyrium nipponicum 'Pictum'). It has beautiful silvery fronds that shade to distinctive dark ribs. And it has spawned some gorgeous new hybrids like A. 'Burgundy Lace,' which has dark fronds highlighted by silver veining, and A. 'Ursula's Red' with bright white topsides, claret undersides, rosy ribs, and a midnight purple band of color down the center of each frond.

"One of my favorites is the Athyrium 'Ghost,' " says Avent. "It almost glows in the garden."

Caring for ferns

Depending on the variety, ferns have a range of cultural needs so be sure to ask for specific requirements when you buy.

"It's a myth that all ferns need deep shade," says Moran. "Most prefer semi-shade, though some, like the Dixie wood fern [Dryopteris x australis] thrive in swamp or dry gravel and will take sun or shade."

Asking about a fern's native climate usually gives clues to its needs. For example, most indoor tropical ferns, which come from rain forest-type climates, are water hogs and also love a daily misting.

Jones recommends not buying bare root ferns by mail.

"Ferns have very fine roots," she explains. "If they're at all dried out, the fern may not make it."


Plant Delights Nursery Inc.

9241 Saul's Road

Raleigh. NC 27603


Fancy Fronds

P.O. Box 1090

Gold Bar, WA 98251


Wayside Gardens

1 Garden Lane

Hodges, SC 29695-0001


Big Dipper Farm

26130 SE Green Valley Road

Black Diamond, WA 98010


Collector's Nursery

16804 NE 102nd Ave.

Battle Ground, WA 98604


www.collectorsnursery. com

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