Harriet Morse called ferns the "wings" of the garden.
In her classic "Gardening in the Shade" (Charles Scribner’s Sons), Morse writes of her fondness for this unique and ancient class of plants, relics of the dinosaur age. In a woodland setting, especially, perched near water or tumbling down crevices in the rock, their delicate fronds do appear poised for flight.
As in florists’ bouquets, they are a perfect foil for other plants. But in the garden, you get to witness their full life cycle, from the time the stems uncoil like watch springs gone bad to their final act in autumn, when many turn a pale, burnished gold.
There are loads of ferns, 10,000 or so, found all over the world. All are characterized by brownish or blackish patches of sori, repositories of the dust-like spores, on the undersides of full-grown leaves. You can propagate ferns from this stuff, but it’s pretty darn tricky, and few gardeners bother.
If you have damp, shady ground, chances are you have some native ferns growing wild. Two of the most common are the lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina), a very refined plant with frilly swords of foliage, and the sensitive fern, (Onoclea sensibilis) with broad, bright-green and deeply lobed fronds, quite atypical of the fern clan.
The latter gets its name from its characteristic of keeling over dead at the first touch of frost — not because it’s temperamental or brooding, with feelings easily hurt. Around August, it sends up tall green stalks (spore-carriers) that turn a rich brown, adding a touch of elegant weirdness to the overall appearance.
I’m familiar with both of these; I’ve got clumps of sensitive fern down by the brook, squeezing up among the astilbes and forget-me-nots. And in my previous home, farther south in the acidic, sandy soils at the northern edge of the Pine Barrens, I had a carpet of lady ferns under my oaks.
Florists customarily include ferns with bouquets, but not every fern will do as a cutting specimen. I was surprised, to say the least, when my eager gathering of lady ferns as bouquet filler turned out badly — they wilted and shriveled up almost immediately.
If you want cutting ferns, you want something from the Dryopteris clan, like the leatherwood fern (Dryopteris marginalis) or the toothed wood fern (Dryopteris spinulosa). Both create sturdy clumps about 2 feet tall and, once established, should provide some material for modest cutting sprees.
The most outlandish of the hardy ferns include the ostrich fern (Matteuccia pensylvanica), which can grow up to 6 feet tall, really making you feel like you’re back in Jurassic times. It can take more sun than most, and is really exciting at the edge of a pond. Be forewarned, though — it can spread quickly via underground runners, dominating all in its path.
The Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichiodes) is evergreen, a deep, glossy green and easy to grow. Examine the fronds carefully and you’ll see that their segments look like tiny little Christmas stockings strung along the stem. I have several clumps of these, and while healthy, they don’t increase much from year to year.
Two of the loveliest members of the family are the native maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) and the Japanese silver painted fern (Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’).
The first looks too delicate to survive, with its dainty green leaflets suspended from black stems, but is in fact among the hardiest of ferns. It needs well-drained soil, and is at its best growing from damp stone walls or rock faces, where it will tuck itself in for the long haul.
The painted fern is a thing of rare beauty, its fronds brushed with silver and its stems a deep wine-red. When I spot this one in a garden, it brings me to a complete stop. It looks particularly sharp near blue flowers, like carpet bugle, or pink ones, like bleeding heart.
Another place I like to see ferns is on my dinner plate. Fiddleheads, coiled-up, new fern shoots, are available all too briefly this time of year in specialty produce markets.
Trim their stalk ends and steam gently for about seven minutes, then dress them with butter, salt and pepper and a dash of wine vinegar or lemon. The taste is somewhere between artichoke and asparagus. And if that isn’t enough, they’re a real conversation-starter.
Recently, as I stood at the market scooping fiddleheads into a plastic bag, a guy approached me with the usual question: "What’s that?" I gave him the standard palaver about how good they are, but he didn’t go away convinced. Fine by me. Like I said, the season is short and the supply never abundant.
I went off happily to the cashier, although fiddleheads ain’t cheap. Still, there’s nothing like having your ferns (in the garden) and eating them, too.