Sunday, May 20, 2012

Ferns That Work For You

Ferns are one of the true non-flowering plants.  These ancient plants reproduce by spores - an amazing difference that is worth explaining to your kids/grandkids. Spores are often found on the back of the frond (or leaf if you will); they are clustered into spore cases (sporangia) that are grouped in clusters called sori.  Fronds with sori are fertile fronds, and some ferns produce unique fertile fronds that look nothing like the other fronds.

Sori on Dryopteris marginalis
Fertile frond with sori on
Botrychium biternatum

Despite their lack of flowers they provide beauty and versatility in the garden and support wildlife in less noticeable but unique ways.  Songbirds use fronds from some of the more delicate ferns like New York fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis) for nesting material. Insects feed on some ferns while others provide cover for reptiles, amphibians and small mammals.

Georgia has a bunch of indigenous ferns, many of which are perfectly suitable for average garden use, especially in shade/part-shade conditions. The larger ferns offer bold green foliage to be used as a foil against other plants. Small ferns can serve as accent pieces, particularly in tight spaces or at the base of trees. Wet tolerant ferns provide a solution to a difficult area and running ferns fill up spaces that might otherwise be hard to reach.  I'd like to introduce you to the possibilities of using native ferns in Georgia.

Northern maidenhair (Adiantum pedatum)

Large ferns: size is subjective, of course, but these are the native ferns that in my garden grow fairly large: Christmas (Polystichum acrostichoides), sensitive (Onoclea sensibilis), southern shield/southern wood (Thelypteris kunthii), lady (Athyrium filix-femina), northern maidenhair (Adiantum pedatum), hay-scented (Dennstaedtia punctilobula), marginal wood (Dryopteris marginalis), cinnamon (Osmunda cinnamomea) and royal (Osmunda regalis).

Red-stemmed lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina)

Small ferns: petite little wonders to tuck into special spots: ebony spleenwort (Asplenium platyneuron), brittle fern (Cystopteris protrusa), grape (Botrychium spp.), and adder's tongue fern (Ophioglossum vulgatum).

Adder's tongue fern (Ophioglossum vulgatum) 
Photo by S. George

Ebony spleenwort (Asplenium platyneuron)

Running ferns: ferns that will send out rhizomes and increase in size by traveling: netted chain (Woodwardia areolata), New York (Thelypteris noveboracensis), sensitive (Onoclea sensibilis), broad beech (Phegopteris hexagonoptera), and Virginia chain fern (Woodwardia virginica).

New York fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis)
Broad beech fern (Phegopteris hexagonoptera)

Wet tolerant: ferns that don't mind being wet occasionally or always: cinnamon (Osmunda cinnamomea), royal (Osmunda regalis), sensitive (Onoclea sensibilis), and netted chain (Woodwardia areolata).

Cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea)

Sun tolerant: ferns that can take more sun, especially full-on morning sun, after 1 pm is a little tricky for any of them:  southern shield/southern wood (Thelypteris kunthii), and the very aggressive bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum).  Both of these do run a bit and the more the moisture the more they run!

A robust clump of Thelypteris kunthii

Specimen: ferns that are especially attractive or unusual:  northern maidenhair (Adiantum pedatum) and southern maidenhair (Adiantum capillus-veneris), rockcap fern (Polypodium virginianum), resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides), and American climbing fern (Lygodium palmatum).

Rockcap fern growing on a log (Polypodium virginianum)

Evergreen ferns: ferns that retain some fronds year round in the metro Atlanta area: Christmas (Polystichum acrostichoides), marginal wood (Dryopteris marginalis), ebony spleenwort (Asplenium platyneuron), rockcap fern (Polypodium virginianum), resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides), and the fall-appearing grapefern (Botrychium biternatum).

A young Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)

If you're not using native ferns in your garden, give them a try.  They are a beautiful and useful addition to almost any condition.

Reference: Field Guide to the Ferns and Other Pteridophytes of Georgia by Lloyd Snyder and James Bruce


  1. The birds nearly decimated our new-this-year Cinnamon Fern. Evidently couldn't resist that fluffy stuff they're named for! Thanks for another great post!

  2. Wonderful ferns. We have many of these species here too. I do need to add more to my own garden though.

  3. I have never heard of Adder's Tongue! Really cool and I would never have guessed that it was a fern based on the photo.

  4. Good information and great pictures. We have a lot of different ferns here in upstate SC. I live int he mountains of South Carolina and see different ferns all the time on our property.

    Does the Adder's tongue fern grow in northern SC?

    I just posted a few pictures of the Netted Chain Ferns growing our our property, check it out.
    Netted Chain Fern

    You have a great site, good resource and great pictures.


  5. Thank you for these pictures and references! Are there any ferns I can hang on my porch all summer and then plant in the fall in our partially wooded, partially sunny north Georgia mountain yard? I just hate letting them die off and buying new in the spring! I'd rather add them to our yard and buy new in the spring!