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The majestic Sword Fern is one of first images that come to mind when someone says “Northwest native plant.” Anyone who has stepped out on one of our forest trails or visited a wooded park will immediately recognize it. And although this tough native is also incredibly garden worthy, it is by no means the only one suitable for the garden!
The Pacific Northwest is home to about forty species of ferns. The number of genera are far fewer; for example, there are a number of species of Polystichum (one of which is the sword fern), and many of them look so similar to the casual observer that it would seem that there are fewer native ferns than is actually the case.
Ferns can be found in nearly every area of our region, and so there are also many native ferns likewise appropriate for nearly every garden condition, even sunny rock gardens! True, the majority are shade and moisture lovers and are thought of as a backbone of the shade garden and rightly so. Evergreen or deciduous, they are virtually disease and pest-free, and can provide a range of textures and heights and help create an elegant shade garden collage.
In a sunny rock garden, the miniature ferns that can be found in those conditions can make a sweet, unexpected focal point (also good for a container). As small as a few inches tall to a towering six feet, there is a native fern for all occasions and settings! Here are a few:
For the shade: (click to enlarge photos)
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Characteristics: Woodland ferns in the Pacific Northwest are both easily recognized as shade-tolerant, forest-dwelling species. But since our ferns have such diverse habitat preferences, it is best that they be dealt with one at a time.
Propagation: Division of clumps or of rhizome is easier is the easiest and quickest way to get mature pants. Digging ferns in the wild, either for whole plants or to make divisions of clumps, must be done sparingly and with good judgment. It should be possible to subdivide plants by carefully severing a piece of the underground stem and firming the remainder back into its spot.
Maintenance: Dead fronds should be left attached to the plant through the winter and then removed, if desired, in February, just prior to the appearance of new growth.
There are a few native ferns that make their homes in rocky, typically "un-fern-like" surroundings, mostly in drier, sub-alpine climate. They are, however, diminutive and charming and can make ideal rock garden or container plants.
Protection from our wetter weather is a must. Most can take more sun than their woodland relations, and all require excellent drainage.
Small and tufted, these ferns that nestle in crevices in and among rocks grow only about 4-6" in height. Some varieties, like Cheilanthes gracillima (Lace Fern) and Aspidotis densa (Indian Dream Fern) have soft, lacy fronds.
Others, like Asplenium trichomanes (Spleenwort) and Cryptogramma crispa (Parsley Fern) have tiny fronds that are by contrast quite leathery in texture. Though not common, these natives are worth the effort if you are fond of ferns!