Cultivating Ferns

“Flowers may come and flowers may go but I go on for ever,” might well be said by the ancient fern at Kew Gardens, looking back over the 3,000 years of life computed to be its portion. And that is one individual of a race whose origin is lost in the mists of antiquity. Its beautiful markings appear in our coal measures, and that dates it back beyond human history into the earlier geological eras.

It flutes its edges and tassels its tips like a seaweed; its spores cannot be fertilized in the absence of moisture, and its general characteristics hint at an early life in the waters that covered the earth. Age has not limited its activities, and in all climates—in every variety of place— summer and winter, indoors and out, the fern’s green plumes rest the eye, and excite the interest of man.

Varieties of Fern

As a family its branches are endless. Of British species alone there are close on fifty, and some of these have more than fifty varieties, so that it is not easy for the amateur to distinguish one fern from another.

Some of the hardier varieties are frequently sold by hawkers and used on rockeries, or as pot plants. A short description of a few may help the grower to identify those he has already, and interest him in acquiring others.

THE BRITISH MAIDEN-HAIR FERN (Adiantum capillus veneris) is so delicate that a warm coastal situation, a warm draughtless house, or cultivation under a bell-glass are essential for its well being. It cannot live where gas is used, and as, in its native haunts, it dies down in the winter, it is advisable to give the plant a rest period by withholding water when the foliage begins to wither. The fronds should be cut back as they die. A fresh crop will appear again in spring. The Maidenhair Fern has a dark wiry stalk and small delicate fan-shaped fronds. Planted in broken peat, silver sand and a little loam, with a sprinkling of charcoal to sweeten the soil, kept warm and moist, but without direct sunshine, it will flourish in warm districts. The hardier species, Adiantum pedatum, from North America, will grow freely, with similar cultural treatment, in most parts of the country.

THE PARSLEY FERN (Allosorus crispus) resembles garden parsley, but its fronds vary from smooth-edged to cut-edged pinnules, even in one plant. It is a mountain fern living mainly among loose debris, and no ordinary pot or garden culture suits it. One specimen brought to London was preserved in a unique way. A hole was dug, a foot deep, and filled with rough brown peat and loam, mixed with coarse sand and gravel. On this was spread the matted fern root with its growing end northward. It was then completely buried with a spadeful of gravel, covering the roots; on the south side a large brick mass about 2 ft. high was dumped. The whole was drenched with water and left. Apparently regarding the falls of stone and rock as a usual thing, it pushed its fronds through the gravel and grew season after season, as if on its native mountain-side.

THE SPLEEN WORTS (Asplcnitim) These are little ferns found, summer and winter alike, in the crevices of old walls. One variety is the Wall Rue, with a small knob of fine roots, and diminutive spreading stalks each with a small group of pointed oval pinnules arranged in triplet form at the top.

Another common variety, the Scaly Spleenwort, is leathery leaved, somewhat larger, and with narrow fronds. Moreover its stalkless pinnules are placed alternately so as to form a wavy outline to the frond. It, too, roots in the mortar of old walls. These are both difficult to cultivate, though common enough in nature’s gardens.

THE LADY FERN (Athyrium-Filix-Jeemina) This I a very well known fern—bright green, of soft texture, and growing in tufts, in moist woods, and along road-side ditches. The spaces between the pinnules are not large but are sufficient to give a light and graceful appearance, in spite of its occasional 5 ft. of height, it dies down completely in the winter. Some of the varieties are wonderfully crested or branched at the ends of the pinna?, and frilled out of all recognition—and some grow into such closely and minutely branched and rebranched pinna, as to resemble tall thick plumes of green.

Culture is easy

The fern is not dainty as to soil, and the usual loam, leaf-mould and sand compost is equal to its needs. Water must not be spared, even in winter, for though the fronds are then invisible, in natural conditions the Lady Fern is bathed in moisture at that season, and if allowed to become dry, it will perish.

HARD FERN (Dlechnum spicant) An evergreen of 1-3 ft. in height —is very tough and leathery, with long narrow fertile fronds rising from a lax spreading rosette of non-fertile ones. Its pinnules have smooth edges.

As its home is a moist hedge-bank, stream-side or damp wood, or among the heather on hillsides, it will grow well on a rockery with a northern aspect, provided there are good pockets of friable loam with peaty or leafy material and an entire absence of lime or chalk. Rain water must be used if watering is needed, as hard water may kill the piant.

MALE FERN (Lastrea Filix-Mas) A sturdy 5 ft. plant, whose fronds rise in circles from a stout root stock to form the well-known shuttlecock-shape. It does not, like the Lady Fern, die down altogether in winter, but its fronds lie flat and appear limp. It is the most usual fern in amateur’s gardens, and is quite easy to cultivate in rockery or garden bed, though naturally it responds best to the fern soil, ie. sandy leaf-mould and loam, and ample watering.

ROYAL FERN (Osmunda Regalis) The largest of British ferns grows deciduous fronds, 10-12 ft. long. It is found wild in Devonshire, along the upper reaches of the Dart, on islands in lake districts, and in other thoroughly moist localities. Its massive rootstocks stand out of the ground, clothed thickly with aerial roots, like huge sponges, and its great fronds, twice or thrice divided into pinna? With their smooth-edged pinnules, make it unmistakable. It can be grown in spongy peat, kept perfectly moist, but it requires so much room that in most gardens it would be unwelcome. The upper pinnae die off as the brown spore-masses ripen, and resemble a dead spiraea flower in general appearance, hence it has been mistakenly called The Flowering Fern.


The Common Polypody is an evergreen fern with blunt pinnae. Set rather far apart so as to resemble a double comb with blunt widely-spaced teeth. It grows from 1-2 ft. high, and is found in such differing places as on old walls and roofs, the forks or trunks of old trees, on woodland debris, or rocky mounds

The spores and their cases are unusually large and brilliant yellow as in no other British species.

The thick fleshy rootstocks run along the surface and the fronds spring up singly, not in clumps. A more dainty species is the feathery triple-branched Oak fern, which looks like three small triangles. It only grows 6-8 in. in height and is a particularly delicate “moonlight green,” so that it is one of the prettiest to cultivate. It dies down in the winter, but its spring growth is curious in that its three fronds at one stage hang like a pawnbroker’s sign.

It will grow well under glass, in a well-drained pan filled with very leafy, loose, sandy compost, and with ample water supplied; but it needs shelter from sun and wind.

THE SOFT PRICKLY SHIELD FERN (Polystichum angulare) is a beautiful evergreen fern with stalked pinnules and very graceful form; a somewhat open spacing of the pinnae makes it light in appearance, and it grows most freely in the warm, damp West. The genus lends itself to innumerable variations—forks at its pinnae tips, crests at its top, and the limitless branching of the plumose type, but the whole family is named and known by the little mushroom-shaped shield that protects the spores at the back of the leaf. They are hardy ferns and, being circular in growth, make good plants either for pot or rockery.

COMMON BRACKEN (Pteris aquilina) is a handsome, well-known plant on heath lands and commons, in woods and on hill sides, where it spreads vigorously. It is hardly less beautiful in its brown winter garb than in spring’s fresh green. It is, however, difficult to remove, as its rootstocks are both deep and brittle, and it is not advisable to introduce it into a small garden, as it is a rooted monopolist, and in a short time will oust everything else.

HART’S TONGUE FERN (Scolopendrium) is a hardy evergreen with quite undivided fronds. When it varies it is more in the direction of a deeply frilled edge, but there are some crested and tasselled tops in the family.

It is a very useful rockery fern, and with its basket-shaped growth will look well in pots in its youth; old plants become rather heavy. It grows well in mixed loam, peat and sand, but is probably benefited by the addition of a little lime; indeed it is particular in only one matter, that it must be kept supplied with water.

Ferns Grown in a Rockery

FERNS GROWN IN A ROCKERY should be planted according to their mature size, the larger Basket or Shuttlecock-shaped ones being put among the lower stones, and the more delicate and smaller varieties in the upper pockets, e.g. Male fern, Lady fern and Prickly Shield might be used round the base, Hart’s Tongue higher in the rockery, and small specimens of the common Polypody near the top. In every case it is essential that there should be some shade from the sun; that the construction of the rockery allows of good drainage; that the pockets or crevices are deep and filled with a compost of equal parts of loam, leaf-mould and sand; and that watering is judiciously done.

11. June 2013 by admin
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