In the Garden:
Mid-Atlantic
May, 2003
Regional Report

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I always pause to admire the demure Japanese painted fern in my garden.

Ferns for All

Do you do ferns? I think everybody should do ferns. In fact, this year I'm experimenting with some that are new to me because I want more to go along with the ones I already have. "All fern one, one fern all."

Ferns I have Known and Loved
I always pause to admire the demure Japanese painted fern (Athyrium nipponicum "Pictum", zones 3-8). It's a ghostly thing, with chocolate-maroon stems and a dusting of freshly fallen redbud blossoms. In my tousled garden, this seems overly elegant, like a snippet of icy green lace and a hint of rosebuds.

I am entranced by the whorled patterns of the maidenhair fern (Adiatum pedatum, zones 3-8) living behind the potting shed where rain pours off the roof. I feared it too fragile to withstand such a pounding. It is beaten by acorns, and squirrels throw sticks there, too. But the fern still stands, tilted southward, reaching for the sunlight filtered through the oak tree.

I am bewitched by the spritely, fine-textured fronds of the hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctiloba, zones 3-8). This one reminds me of the make-believe world of fairy tales, where forest glens are inhabited by princesses, mice, and elves dancing in the moonlight. This fern is a trickster. Despite its ethereal look, it devours a shady swathe of prepared soil in the blink of an eye, and yes, it covers ground nicely in most other shady places -- and even takes some sun. In the fall, it turns golden like straw. When bruised, it should smell like fresh cut hay; maybe to you, but I am not convinced.

I am ambivalent about the Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris a.k.a. M. pensylvanica, zones 3-7), too. Each spring it comes back bigger and bolder, a vase-shaped primordial presence. It leaps wide distances, blasting its way up any old place -- in the middle of a rhododendron or crowding a prized hosta or even blocking my path. In a wetter location, this party crasher would construct a deluxe waist-high carpet worthy of a Victorian-style garden. I transplanted a few to the woods next to a gigantic granite boulder, and indeed, they look great together each spring. Soon they will be hidden by the surrounding woods and that is fine because it is on the dry side there and by midsummer they go dormant and look rusty.

So my favorite fern to date? It's a short evergreen, which is silly in a snowy climate. This specimen has been hanging on nearly a decade now through cold, heat, and drought. It hasn't increased much but new fiddleheads come up through the battered old fronds every spring. To me, its substance, often described as leathery, shows character. It's the Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides, zones 3-8). With a name like that, it has to be tops.


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