garden fern

Garden Ferns and All You Need to Know

Who needs flowers when the foliage is so spectacular?

Ferns have been a prominent part of the vegetation on earth for millions of years and are a major component of the vast coal deposits formed during the carboniferous period. Today these leafy gems still contribute enormously to ornamental horticulture around the world, offering solutions to damp and shaded areas of the garden where few flowering plants survive.

Their distinctive shape, form and texture lend many options and possibilities to the landscape on both large and small scales. Ferns are widespread and found growing in a great diversity of climates, making them suitable plants for gardens and homes virtually everywhere – there will always be a fern that’s good for your garden.

Large ferns

Tree-like ferns are widespread through tropical and temperate climates, and two species are indigenous to South Africa – Cyathea dregei and C. capensis. Tree ferns have become popular feature plants in gardens, their tall, statuesque stems and huge fronds making spectacular feature plants in strategic positions. However, they have often been planted in shaded positions that are far too small and restrictive to allow them to grow to full maturity, particularly in the case of the Australian and New Zealand tree ferns that grow much faster than their local relatives.

So make sure that young plants have adequate space to develop in, bearing in mind that some can reach heights of 5m or more, with fronds some 2m long translating into a crown that’s a total of 4m or more in diameter. These are large plants that need plenty of space to be fully appreciated!

Medium ferns

Numerous ferns of moderate growth size are found in gardens. Most of them have rhizomatous stems that creep across the soil or sometimes just below the surface. They spread readily and are often used as groundcovers in larger gardens with mature trees that create plenty of shade.

Included in this large group is Rumohra adiantiformis, the much cultivated leatherleaf fern. Not only is it a tough and enduring groundcover, but the foliage is harvested in vast quantities for the floristry trade.

Small ferns

Smaller growing ferns of some 30 – 40cm in height are most effective for creating a carpet or underplanting in shaded gardens with mature shrubs. Adiantum and Pteris species are ideal for this purpose. Rabbit’s foot ferns (Davallia) spread by means of creeping rhizomes with ‘fur’ on their growth tips. Most of the smaller ornamental ferns are popular as pot plants outdoors in the shade or indoors in the home. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of different smaller fern species and hybrids being cultivated.

The Gardener