Here is the fern’s frond, unfurling a gesture,
Like a conductor whose music will now be pause
And the one note of silence
To which the whole earth dances gravely
So begins Ted Hughes’ contemplation on the power of nature, and there is certainly no plant that gives the garden a more natural feel than the fern. With their frothy, graceful fronds and deep green hues, ferns add unparalleled richness and texture to naturalistic landscaping.
Ferns were one of the first plants on Earth, and fossil remains have been found dating back 450 million years or more. Ferns can be found all over the world, and were at their height during the Carboniferous Period (the Age of Ferns), so called because they dominated the plant world at that time. During this era some fern-like groups actually evolved seeds, later giving rise to the flowering plants. Most of the ferns of the Carboniferous Period subsequently became extinct, but some survived and evolved into modern fern species. There are about 12,000 species of ferns in the world today.
Unlike flowering plants, ferns reproduce from spores, those brown dots you can see on the underside of the fronds. Most ferns are perennial (they come back year after year) and can be either evergreen (maintaining their foliage year-round) or deciduous (shedding their leaves for the summer or winter months).
Ferns are typically found in four distinct habitats: moist, shady forests; crevices in rock faces, especially when sheltered from the full sun; acid wetlands including bogs and swamps; and tropical trees, where many species are epiphytes, growing directly on the trunks and branches of various species.
The Bay Area is an excellent place to grow ferns, and there are a number of ferns that are native to our area:
o Five Finger Fern (Adiantum aleuticum) is an elegant fern that thrives in deep shade with regular moisture. Can reach 2.5 ft. in height.
o Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum jordanii) has lovely delicate fronds like the leaves of a ginkgo. Likes part to full shade, and will go dormant under dry summer conditions.
o Coastal Wood Fern (Dryopteris arguta) is an excellent evergreen fern with bright green lacy looking fronds. Very tough and easy to grow.
o Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum) is a rugged, drought tolerant fern with an upright 2 to 4 ft. growth habit.
o Giant Chain Fern (Woodwardia fimbriata) is a beautiful large fern that likes sun or shade with adequate water. Can reach 8 ft. in height.
There are also numerous non-native fern species that do well in the Bay Area. Here are a few of my favorites:
o Australian Bird’s Nest Fern (Asplenium antiguum) is an evergreen fern that grows to 3 feet in height. Fronds are undivided, light green and somewhat ruffled. Likes light to dense shade and consistent moisture. Gives a light, airy effect.
o Common Polypody (Polypodium vulgare) is a spreading evergreen fern with low compact growth by creeping rhizomes. Deeply cut dark green leathery fronds are attractive all year. Grow in light to medium shade. This one tolerates drought.
o Tasmanian Tree Fern (Dicksonia Antarctica) grows into a small tree 15 feet in height over time. Evergreen with arching 3 to 6 foot fronds on top of a thick red brown trunk. Likes part shade to sun and consistent moisture.
o Australian Tree Fern (Cyathea cooperi) is faster growing than the Tasmanian Tree Fern, with a narrower trunk. Fronds may be up to 10 feet in length. Both offer a lush tropical appearance to the garden.
Ferns look especially beautiful when combines with rhododendrons, azalias and other acid-loving shade plants in a woodland setting. For more detailed information about ferns, visit the website of the American Fern Society.