On Being a Defacto Pteridophile (fern lover)

This is the NW corner of my garden where I’ve tried many of my ferns. Palms, the fence, our bamboo and steel pagoda and a large Mahonia x media provide more shade than most of the garden ‘enjoys’.  Some of the ‘squirrel tails’ of my Sanguisorba hakusanensis hangs in the foreground.

How many different species and cultivars of a particular plant group do you ‘need’ to grow before you can be said to have a serious problem? I am not an ‘Agave-holic’! Isn’t a statement like this, one of the surest signs of such an affliction? I know other people who grow a lot more of these! What does it mean when you persist in growing a group of plants in spite of the fact that many of them die? And what constitutes too many? It can’t be a set number. If a group comprises comparatively few plants when compared to Orchids say, a group of over 20,000 species, growing a 100 plants might seem obsessive, while in the Orchid world it may not be. My name is Lance and I grow ferns…in a garden that suggests I should grow something else.

The one healthy frond left on my ‘rescued’ Woodwordia unigemmata.  This single leaf is almost 3′ long.

While at the NWPA’s Seattle Study Weekend, I noticed a couple of ferns in particular that I have in my own garden, only growing much better, apparently vigorous and ‘carefree’, including Woodwardia unigemmata and a couple of different forms of Asplenium. One of the first things I did on my return home was to dig my own Woodwardia unigemmata. freeing it from the thirsty roots of my neighbors Kwanzan Cherry. I did the same for a Dryopteris wallachiana which had also been struggling with too little water, only it was under my own large Parrotia persica and Actinidia kolomikta.

Asplenium scolopendrium ‘Furcatum’ happy near the gate growing with Asarum splendens. Aspidistra, more Acorus and an Astrantia also grow in this bed, but other genera, whose names start with a letter other than ‘A’ also abide in it.

Asplenium scolopendrium ‘Furcatum, the Fork Crested Hart’s Tongue Fern, pfeeew, whaat a name!,  is another very nice form of a beautiful species.  I saw various forms of this at the study weekend, all of them looking vibrant and neat.  The first of these I’d bought several years ago was the straight species and was devastated by root weevils notching its leaves.  With that exception, it has grown well for me.

I never really considered myself to be a ‘pteridophile’, but I have always been drawn to the often incredible textures that they can offer the garden and have always enjoyed hiking through the undergrowth of old growth forest which can be dominated by ferns. Well, mine isn’t a woodsy garden. I have no ‘stumpery’ and my garden could probably be most accurately characterized as mostly sunny, and hot, for the Pacific Northwest. Still, if I can grow these large growing ferns well in pots they will greatly add to the ‘feel’ that I’m trying to create in my garden. I’ve given up on Dicksonia, the hardiest of the Tree Ferns, though part of me is tempted to try D. antarctica a third time, and these two, the above mentioned Woodwardia and the D. wallachiana, may be my best chance to mimic them.

One of the first ferns I purchased, almost 30 years ago for this garden, is still here, wedged between my fence along its south edge and my Stewartia monadelpha. It comes back every year, laboring in obscurity far from prying eyes. In fact some years I forget that it’s there and miss its annual show of cinnamon colored fertile fronds. This is Osmundastrum cinnamomeum which had the simpler genus name of Osmunda when I bought it.  At the same time I’d bought a Royal Fern, Osmunda regalis, which lasted only a little longer than the several different Himalayan Blue Poppies I’ve tried over the years.

Yes, I grow our Western Sword Fern and Lady Fern.  I, in fact, ‘weed’ some of these out so that they don’t crowd out the more exotic choices I’ve made. Even my Western Maidenhair Fern has replicated itself in some of the shadier edge spaces that I can offer, though its desirable cousin, Adiantum venustum, perished from beneath the same water-sucking Cherrry tree, remember, it’s another monsoonal Himalayan denizen.  So far several of my Aralia Family members are among the few plants doing well in this far corner, including a Fatsia japonica ‘Spiderweb’, Schefflera delavayii and a x Fatshedera along with a now over grown Cast Iron Plant, Aspidistra elatior, but I’m trying. This particular area also suffers from being the kitty/racoon highway on ramp into my garden as well as a cat poop station!

This Athyrium otophorum, Eared Lady Fern, is especially handsome looking good next to the bold Astelia chathmatica.

I’m not the only one who likes Athyrium otophorum…so do the editors at Timber Press!

For me ferns are about structure and texture though several offer color variations from a subtle palette, beyond the normal greens that dominate amongst the group. One of my favorites is Athyrium otophorum, with a greenish pewter cast that is set off by its dark burgandy stipes. This one has always done well for me, has gorgeous color in the spring on its new growth that it retains through the summer with little fading. I’ve grown these in the ground from the beginning where they have performed consistently and robustly.

The fronds of Dryoopteris sieboldii are unique on this rhizomatous fern.

Dryopteris sieboldii, hardy to zn 7a, which ideally spreads in humus rich, woodsy, soil along rhizomes has been more problematic for me. Its softly rounded, ‘fingered’, pinnae are striking gray-pewter, standing out in almost any scene. This struggled, declining, from the nice gallon plant that I bought while it was in my too heavy soil and has begun to recover with its return to a pot…hmmm?  This fern first came to my attention when two friends and co-workers planted a bunch of them in the new ‘Cloud Forest Garden’ in Washington Park.  I experimented with three downtown in Chapman Square and from there decided to try one at home.  Gardening in downtown Parks was a great opportunity to try plants I didn’t necessarily have space for at home, though sometimes the ‘experiment’ went the other direction.  The individual fronds of this plant look very much like the next fern.

The Blue Virginia Rabbit’s Foot Fern, Phlebodium pseudoaureum, has been really ‘happy’ in a pot the last four years. I divided it this Spring which set it back a little. Here it grows with one of my Bromeliads, an Aecheme, the orange flowering brachycyphus is striking with it. This will be joined in July when the Gloxinia ‘Evita’ joins it with similarly colored flowers.

Another fern I’ve grown for four years or so, all of them in a pot, is Phlebodium pseudoaureum. Its specific name suggests that it is ‘yellow’…aureum???  I think this has to do with the tissue color inside the rhizome….This is a decidely more tender fern, that I have lost previously when I treated it much too casually. It is blue or about as blue a fern as you will ever see.  It does not form pinnae, but instead has undivided leaves with deep rounded lobes, setting it apart from the above Dryopteris visually.  Its rhizome grows near the surface of the soil forming itself around hard obstructions like stones and the edge of your pot, fronds launching themselves vertically, but low, from it. This is of tropical and sub-tropical regions of the Americas and is only found to occur naturally as far north as Southern Georgia in the US, but…it is reportedly cold hardy down to zn 8a, not for me, not in my soil, here.

Onoclea sensibilis

Somewhere along the gardening way I got an Onoclea sensibilis.  It’s not on any of my lists and I think it was a tag along…could it have come here as a spore…I don’t know, but I haven’t found it anywhere else in the garden.  It’s lived for over ten years on its own under the same water sucking Parrotia that has been threatening to kill my Dryopteris w., receiving minimal supplemental water, nothing extravagant, yet persists and has even increased somewhat, spreading from a shallow rhizome. Eventually, it will retreat as the summer gets hot in August.

I don’t grow Blechnum spicant, our Western Deer Fern, I’ve killed it, along with many of the other native woodlanders I’ve tried in the ealy years in this garden including Erythronium, mulitple different Trillium (I have only one today, Trillium sessile which has returned dependably beneath my Stewartia m.), Cornus canadense, Vancouveria chrysantha and a host of Himalayan species. The Common Oak Fern, Gymnocarpium dryopteris, also died here, all likely for a shared reason, too heavy of soil, not enough humus and likley summer drought.

Cyrtomium falcatum growing in too much sun, but not bad anyway, with the dark form of Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ behind it.

In contrast, I can grow some of the Holly Ferns in the ground here. Both the Fishtail Holly Fern, Cyrtomium caryotideum and the Japanese Holly Fern, C. falcatum, perform here in spite of the conditions. I am able to protect them from too much sun and they survive the root competition and heavy soil. I have even occassionally found a few new plant babies!

Pyrrosia lingua ‘Variegata’ growing in the ground near my gate, with an Astelia nivicola ‘Red Devil’ and a few Himalayans that are still hanging in there…even increasing.

Pyrrosia shearerii very congested and ready for division in the coming dormant season.

Pyrrosia hastata shown here growing in the ground where its been the last three years increasing. I grow this in a pot too and it is in need of division. True to their name, the undersides of the leaves of all of these have a thick ‘felt’ covering.

I have even had success with some of the Felt Ferns, the Pyrrosia spp. which are of Asian origin with their requirement for summer moisture…in the ground! Pyrrosia lingua and its cultivar ‘variegata’ do well for me in pots, and the ground, as does the species P. hastata. In fact these have readily increased for me. With their very thick, flelted leaves they appear very un-fern like to the uninitiated. Rhizomatous, these spread…and to this I say, bring it on! I have not tried P. shearerii in the ground yet, next year after I divide its very crowded largish pot! Its blades, this is not a pinnate, divided, fern, are tongues, probably twice as long or more as those of P. lingua, which is available in several forms including some that are beautifully crested, which I’ll be adding.

Athyrium nipponicum ‘Ghost’? ‘Godzilla’? with Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’ and ‘Aureus Minimus’.

I have grown Japanese Painted Fern, Athyrium nipponicum, almost since I began gardening here, but the varieties have changed, changing tints, some lighter, to the point where I’m not sure which plants I still have in the garden.  ‘Pictum’, ‘Ghost’, ‘Godzilla’… I’m not sure which ones are which of the three on my list.  Mine always tend to be smaller than the specs call for, again probably due to low humus and borderline drought.

Polystichum polyblepherum grows well for me, here nearly 6′ across and 3’tall

There are other ferns out there including several Polystichum, a genus I should probably focus on more, as they seem as a group to be more dependable for me, both here in my garden and in the beds I used to be resposible for in Parks. Polyshichum polyblepherum, is beautiful and rock solid. In my old downtown beds were Christmas Fern, P. acrostichoides, P. x dycei, P. makionoi, the Asian Saber Fern, P. neolobatum and P. setiferum divisilobum, among others.

Near my western fence is Dryopteris pseudofilix-mas, a variegated form of the Mexican Shield Fern….It needs a little help in its current spot removing some of its competitors, the Dicentra formosa ‘Langtrees’ is threatening to engulf it.  Near my gate is a very similar looking Arachnoides simplicior ‘Variegata’, while not thriving both of these are hanging in there and have room to spread, slowly, by their rhizomes.  In case you are wondering, many of the Springs that I’ve been here, I’ve added compost liberally, which always seems to ‘burn up’ quickly as organisms consume and oxidize it.  Some areas I’ve augmented with pumice when replanting.  The Arachnoides, in particular remains in a mostly shaded area with heavy loam which tends to be slow to dry and forms broad cracks when it does in summer.  Both of these are only two years old and need more time to really get going.

It is hard enough to read through my plant data base, remembering the many plants I struck from it before I decided to leave them in, noting their fates. The several species of Pellaea, Clff Brake and the Pteris or Brake Ferns, I’ve gotten from growers like Seabright, Fancy Fronds and more…all dead….not because there was something wrong with the plants, but because my site, or care, was lacking.  No organism can exist outside of its range.  To believe otherwise would be like us traveling to the moon and not bringing oxygen.  It’s all more than a little tough to contemplate, especially when I sift through my early notebooks full of plant lists, with their columns of plants that haven’t grown here in decades…sigh.  I guess I’m a slow learner.


4 thoughts on “On Being a Defacto Pteridophile (fern lover)

  1. Jenni Dennis

    Hi Lance, that is a very impressive collection! I cannot profess to have such a vast collection, but I, too, am a defacto pteridophile. P. dycei is a favorite but I also love Athyrium angustum forma rubellum ‘Lady in Red’ (wow..that’s a mouthful) and our native deer fern (which I fully admit I give summer supplimental water). I really enjoyed reading about all of your varieties and how they’ve performed.


  2. Loree / danger garden

    Ferns are so cool! (I’ve been saying “ferns are the new succulents” for awhile now and it’s amazing how many people this gets fired up, mainly people who live in warmer drier climes) I recently did a little count of all the different kinds I’ve accumulated and was quite surprised. Yours all look quite healthy.


  3. Alyse

    Lance, I can so relate! Not only is it mind-bogglingly challenging to look back through data base of plants I’ve owned, but it’s a little heart wrenching as well. So many have perished. I’m glad you made the effort here (and as you always do!). I am SO keeping this one with my fern references. I’d much rather have the reality and the FULL truth about species. The plant deaths had their value; your successes are high on my wish list. Your notes on plants not surviving out of their range, is wise and well said.

    Liked by 1 person


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