University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
New England's native ferns are spectacular, both in the wild and in
cultivation. The variety of size, form, and texture is remarkable,
various habitats where these ferns thrive are somewhat surprising.
These dozen described here are among the most
popular and best for gardens, are easy to grow, and are hardy to at
zone 4 (-20 to -30 degrees F average winter temperature). You can
find many at garden centers that have
a wide selection of perennials, although you may have to contact a
nursery to find others.
maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum), up to 18 inches tall, is
daintiest of the native ferns. Its black stems are topped with a
arrangement of “pinnae” (leaf-like segments or leaflets, arranged
side of a central stalk or “rachis”). It does best in filtered light
well-drained, cool soil. This fern spreads fairly slowly.
ebony spleenwort (Asplenium platyneuron)
reaches a foot or slightly higher in moist but well-drained soils,
shade (4 to 6 hours of direct sun a day) to shade. The pinnae on
this fern look like shark’s
teeth, and are in two rows on either side of dark stems which give a
appearance to the “fronds” (fern leaves). Fertile upright fronds
minute fern reproductive units called “spores”) come out in spring,
smaller and more curving sterile fronds in early summer.
fern (Athyrium filix-femina) is quite variable reaching 18 to
in height. Its leaves have the
quintessential “fern” look, with roughly triangular fronds,
divided). There are quite a few
cultivars (cultivated varieties), many popular and first introduced
during the Victorian era, with various shaped pinnae. Lady fern
produces a vigorous flush of
reddish-green growth in the spring when it is at its most
2000, the New England Wildflower Society introduced the popular
in Red’ lady fern with deep red leaf stalks.
This actually was found in the wild in Vermont by one of this
members. Lady fern grows best in shady
conditions with moist to wet soil, but will tolerate a half-day of
fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) reaches 2 feet in height and
fairly rapidly up to 3 to 4 feet wide. You
can easily control the spread by pulling out some of the growth in
don’t plant it near weakly-growing plants or they’ll be overrun. An
advantage is that it will out compete many
weeds. This fern grows best in full sun
to partial shade and tolerates rather hot, dry sites once
established, as well
as acidic soils. Hay-scented fern produces apple-green, lacy
that lend a delicate texture to the garden. When you bruise or crush
they release the odor of new-mown hay.
some of the wood ferns are moderately difficult to grow, some such
as the popular
male fern (Dryopteris filix-mas) are
easy. Although a clumping fern, it makes
colonies up to 3 feet across in 5 to 10 years.
Plants are 2 to 3 feet high, with flattened two-dimensional fronds
turn golden to burgundy shades in fall.
The male fern grows best in shade and moist soils. The related
wood fern (Dryopteris marginalis) is
drought tolerant once established.
fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris var.
pensylvanica) is a three-foot fern that produces gracefully
fronds. Long-tapering at the base, and
short-tapering at the tips, the sterile fronds resemble ostrich
shape. The stiff fertile fronds arise in the middle of each clump in
reach two feet in height, and persist into the winter. The early
spring growth (“crosiers”)
resemble fiddleheads, hence the name, and are edible as many in New
know. Ostrich fern grows best in sun to partial shade and moist
careful where this is planted, as it will spread to form dense
colonies many feet
wide, shading out less vigorous yet desirable perennials.
fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), along with the other members of
is named after Osmunder, Saxon god of war. The Osmunda ferns are
among the most
vigorous of all garden ferns and are not for small sites. The stiff
fertile fronds of the cinnamon fern appear
in spring, first green and later turning cinnamon-brown, making them
identify. Next, the handsome fiddleheads unfurl into three-foot
fronds, which have cinnamon-colored fibers along their base. In
fronds turn golden. This fern does best in a shady site with moist
soil, and is
commonly seen in wetlands of eastern North America.
fern (Osmunda claytoniana) is unusual for its sterile,
fronds that have brown spore cases in the middle with green pinnae
and below, thus being “interrupted”. Interrupted
fern performs best in a shady site with moist soil, but it tolerates
light and drier soil than most ferns. This is one of our oldest
virtually the identical fern being found in fossils from the late
period 220 million years ago.
fern (Osmunda regalis var.
spectabilis) forms a three-foot, vase-shaped clump. The wiry
(“rhizomes”) resembling a scouring pad were once aggressively
used as a growing medium for orchids. The plant's smooth fiddleheads
into bright green, broadly triangular fronds with large smooth
brown spore cases develop on top of the fertile fronds, giving rise
common name, "flowering fern." Royal fern tolerates shade, but grows
best in sun and wet soils.
York fern (Parathelypteris noveboracensis)
is one of several ferns that have been placed by botanists into a
and is the most available and easy marsh fern.
It is a good choice for a smaller fern that will cover some ground
fairly quickly, yet not overrun other plants. Growing two feet high,
it forms colonies more
readily in wet soils yet tolerates drier soils.
Leaves are rather narrow—3 to 5 inches wide—and tapering
at both ends.
fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is one of the few evergreen
Northern New England, easily seen during the late fall in deciduous
The leathery fronds reach a foot or more high, with a similar plant
This is a durable and unfussy fern that is not overly aggressive and
is easy to
incorporate into most shade gardens, making it one of the top ferns
in eastern states. It is quite adaptable to climates and soils,
from Maine to Florida. Its fronds were
once popularly used for Christmas decorating.
If cutting some for this purpose, just take a few from each plant so
to weaken the clump.
details on these ferns, plus many more ferns as well as mosses and
be found in the excellent and easy-to-read reference by William
Cullina, Native Ferns, Mosses and Grasses.