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Five Favorite Ferns for the Shade Garden

The hot days of summer make the site of soft green ferns especially appealing. Somehow the green color together with the light airiness of the fronds dispels the effects of the heat in a way that no other plant manages to do. The quiet, peaceful demeanor of the fronds can help create a restful spot that can be a respite from life’s daily problems. With hundreds of ferns to choose from there is no problem finding a few that will do well in a favorite shady spot and provide you with a get away from the heat or hustle and bustle of everyday life. Here are five of my favorites.

Japanese Painted Fern (Anthyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’)
When the silver fronds tinted with various shades of burgundy emerge from the soil with their wine colored stems each spring they bring early color to the garden and light up the whole area. These ferns are hardy almost everywhere in the country, are adaptable, and easy to grow. They thrive in dapples shade, zones 4-9, and grow about 18” in all directions.

Autumn Fern (Dryopteris erythrosora)
The characteristic that you will notice first and make you want to take the fern home is the lovely copper red or pink color on the otherwise dark green fronds. This color slowly fades to bronze-green as the plant matures but the fronds are finely divided and add a beautiful texture all season. This fern is very tough, grows about 18” tall and slowly spreads to about 24”. Hardy in zones 5-11, it remains attractive year round in zones 7 and warmer, and is a good groundcover, or edging for moist, shady areas.

Maiden Hair Fern (Adiantum pedatum)
The black wiry stems make this fern special but it is unique in some other ways too. The reproductive spores are borne on the edges of the underside of the fronds ( “leaves”) and the edge of the frond grows over the spores giving a ruffled appearance. The whole growth habit of this fern is different from that of other ferns and it forms 18” high bright green whorls of fronds. This is a fern for a very moist spot in bright sun but no sun. If it dries out it will die down, maybe for ever, but sometimes can be resuscitated. It grows well in zones 3-7, is deciduous, and spreads slowly by rhizomes.

Lady Fern (Anthyrium filix-feminae)
Lacey 3’ fronds of light green make this fern a welcome addition to every garden. It is a very adaptable fern and will grow in either shade or sun and tolerates some drought. It is a good plant for those difficult dry-shade areas like under the eves of a house. It tolerates a variety of conditions but may scorch during times of drought, heat waves, or warm winds. It will return in good condition the following year even when trampled. When grown in a moist, shady location it will spread slowly by rhizomes. Hardy in zones 3-8.

Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamonea)
The cinnamon fern makes a great statement in the back of the border. It grows up to 6’ tall and has two different kinds of fronds (leaf-like structures), sterile and fertile. The sterile green fronds look like the fronds of ferns you already know and form a vase shaped plant. The fertile fronds are especially adapted for reproduction and aren’t green. They emerge from a shallow black rootstock in spring as silvery, furry fiddleheads but become vertical as they mature and bear cinnamon brown colored spores for reproduction. They stand stiff and erect in the middle of the plant surrounded by the arching green sterile fronds. These American natives love acidic (pH 6.8) moist places like stream banks swamps, and the edges of ponds and will grow in sun or shade as long as they have enough moisture. Hardy in zones 4-11 they are deciduous (die back in winter) but return in spring, considerably later than the other ferns in my garden.

Herbaceous Perennials pointer

Recommended Reading:

Herbaceous Perennial Plants: A Treatise on their Identification, Culture, and Garden Attributes