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Here in the Pacific Northwest, mostly everyone is familiar with the appearance of ferns in the woodlands. Big sword ferns nestle on the ground underneath the soaring cedars and Douglas firs, while maidenhair ferns daintily flutter as they cling to rocks along a waterfall. Deer ferns will be a surprise at eye level growing on the knobby bark of an old maple tree.
Ferns are also useful garden plants, especially in the shade garden or the woodland garden. They add softness and texture underneath trees in a woodland garden. Ferns can be a filler plant in the shade garden, or they can be the striking feature plant. Some ferns grow as individual plants, while others will spread and make colonies.
Ferns are a great plant for a shade container, and evergreen ferns are great in containers for winter color. Ferns are also very easy, requiring little maintenance.
This month's featured genus, Dryopteris, is the most numerous genus of ferns, with over 200 species. They are found in the forests, fields, and wet areas of the Northern Hemisphere, with many being found in eastern Asia and the Himalayas.
They are attractive ornamental ferns, with upright arching fronds that look great in mixed borders with other perennials. Many species are evergreen. When the fiddleheads are unfurling, many of the Dryopteris have attractive scales in the tips, as well as along the base of the stipe in mature fronds.
Dryopteris freely hybridize in the wild, making them sometimes difficult to identify, but also producing many different plants and features that makes them good ornamental plants. All the Dryopteris are sturdy, strong-growing garden plants with few problems which makes them easy and versatile.
Dryopteris cycadina (Dryopteris atrata) Shaggy Shield Fern: This evergreen fern is beautiful with long, dark green fronds with serrated edges. Fronds grow in an arching habit with black stems, about 24" tall and 18" wide. Black scales can be found along the base of the stipe and underneath rachis. This fern is cold hardy.
Dryopteris erythrosora 'Brilliance' Brilliant Autumn Fern: This is a cute evergreen fern with bronze new foliage making a dazzling contrast with the dark green older fronds. It can take morning sun or shade all day, with a height and width of 18-24". This is a great accent plant in a shade container, or winter color pot. Hardiness Zones 5-9.
Dryopteris expansa Northwest Wood Fern: Yay for the native Dryopteris! This great fern is the one that grows wild here. It is evergreen to semi-evergreen with dainty, clustered, erect fronds to about three feet tall. In alpine habitats it is much smaller, reaching a size of six inches. It prefers damp, rocky, acidic woodland conditions with consistent moisture and coolness. Zones 3-8.
Dryopteris felix-mas Male Fern: Evergreen to semi-evergreen fern is great for mass plantings or the woodland garden or border. It is one of the best known wood ferns and easy to grow making it a great garden addition. It prefers part shade; the fronds growing about three feet tall and a clump about two feet wide. It is found in both North America and Europe, where it is more common. Zones 4-8.
Dryopteris wallichiana Wallich's Wood Fern: This fern is from high elevations from Mexico to the Andes, and the West Indies, Africa, Asia, and Hawaii. It is evergreen with large beautiful fronds and puts out a strong flush of new growth in the spring. The stipe is densely covered with reddish-black scales and the prominent veining on the fronds look like carving. It grows about three feet tall, needs excellent drainage, and is hardy in Zones 5-8.
Photo credits to Peggy Acott, Portland Nursery
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Common Name: Wood Fern, Shield Fern, Buckler Fern
Origin: Temperate forests, fields, and wet areas from the Northern Hemisphere, many in Asia and Europe
Culture: Grow in shade preferably with moist, rich, well-drained woodland soil, but will tolerate dry poor soils as well.
Maintenance: Evergreen Dryopteris will need little to none, perhaps removing damaged fronds periodically while deciduous
Dryopteris will like the dead fronds removed in the fall or spring before new fronds begin unfurling.