There was a time, years ago, when I would gently run my fingers through the fronds of our native Matteuccia struthiopteris for its sweet fragrance. This tall majestic plant acted as a living border against the wall of my Grandparent’s house, which designated the depth of my small shaded plot. [It strikes me somewhat humorously to find that I have always been spatially challenged when it comes to plot sizes!] Robustly exotic, they created a soft foil for an otherwise nondescript stone foundation white board and batten construction. They were among the first foliage plants that I learned to recognize, and over the years have remained
Ferns have been of great interest to gardeners over the ages. The Victorians tended towards obsession with their fascination! It has often been referred to as the age of ‘pteridomania!’ The Fernery at Tatton Park in Cheshire, designed by Joseph Patton during the height of ‘fern fever!’ serves as an example. Sarah Whittingham, in her new book ‘Fern Fever: The Story of Pteridomania,’ notes that, ‘… ferns were popular with influential philanthropists and Christian teachers who viewed them as a Godly plant that had survived for millions of years while bearing none of the showy, vulgar characteristics of flowering plants!’ Egads, sounds startlingly familiar to how most ‘shady characters’ refer to flowers!
Adiantum pedatum, or the Northern maidenhair has always been a personal favourite. When it comes to grace and beauty, few ferns come close to rivaling it’s beauty. I love that it slowly spreads by means of a creeping rhizome, and even a modestly sized clump is able to maintain an air of delicate beauty! It’s near ebony stalks add a wonderful degree of contrast with the bright, light green fronds. I love that it is tolerant of near full shade and happily mingles amongst it’s more bold neighboring foliage plants!
The ubiquitous ‘Japanese Painted Fern,’ Athyrium nipponicum var. ‘Metalicum pictum’ took the gardening world by storm and hasn’t glanced back since! Its colourful fronds and stalks [stipe] are simply radiant in Spring, remaining so into late Fall! The stem is wine-red to purplish red and adjacent leaflets are infused with reddish to bluish hues, fading to a lighter metallic gray towards the tips – a shimmering effect for a pocket of shade!
Newer cultivars are appearing fast and furious, and this one, with its decidedly wine infused stipe, with the colour seeping midway along the leaflets promises to enchant all who stumble across it. If memory serves correctly, it is A.n ‘Burgundy Lace.’
For me ferns will always be associated with my childhood, and while the hoarder in me continues to seek out the rare and unusual, including Athyrium filix femina ‘Dre’s Daggars,’ seen in the photo below, with her mesmerizing criss crossed fronds, reminiscent of swords, my garden would be incomplete without them! One of my most recent acquisitions is Dryopteris wallachiana, which I am looking forward to watching as it sends forth ebony fronds to 1m in height! Sublime! Another favourite is the more diminutive Athyrium filix femina ‘Frizelliae’ also known as the ‘tatting’ or spiral staircase fern. It works best in a container where its short leaflets shaped into rounded lobes resembling handmade lace tattings! There is the odd Osmunda regalis, whose cinnamon infused newly emerging fronds are a spectacle to behold.
And lastly, there is Thelypteris decursiva pinnata, also known as the ‘Japanese beech Fern’ which in the past four years has become a personal favourite. I adore it’s rigid upright habit, and fabulously chartreuse hue as the leaflets begin to open in late Spring! It absolutely shimmers!