Cre­ate wood­land drama with win­ter­green ferns

These feath­ery, un­furl­ing beau­ties are in­dis­pens­able for shady cor­ners. Val Bourne nom­i­nates her favourites for a tricky spot

Garden Answers (UK) - - Contents -

These feath­ery un­furl­ing beau­ties are in­dis­pens­able for shady cor­ners

Gardens need touches of green­ery, es­pe­cially in win­ter. Cer­tain hardy ferns pro­vide rich bolts of green, light­ing up shady and part-shady ar­eas where lit­tle else grows. These an­cient plants evolved in car­bonif­er­ous for­est mil­lions of years ago, so they fraz­zle in strong sun­light. Place them be­hind spring wood­lan­ders, and they’ll add much to a gar­den. The Vic­to­ri­ans were pterido­ma­ni­acs (fern fa­nat­ics) and col­lected spec­i­mens from the wild in the mid-19th cen­tury. They ad­mired the minute dif­fer­ences be­tween the fronds and many ferns are named af­ter the peo­ple who found them, such as Polystichum setiferum ‘Pulcher­ri­mum Be­vis’, named for the hedge­layer who spotted this ex­cep­tional dark green, lacy cre­ation in a Devon ditch in 1876.

Pop­u­lar choices

Fid­dle­back ferns The hand­some male fern, Dry­opteris filix-mas, un­furls its fid­dle-back ferns in early May, as the blue­bells open. Once es­tab­lished, it tol­er­ates dry, shady con­di­tions. Cut back the fronds at the end of De­cem­ber to re­veal their hand­some, chest­nut-brown knuck­les. The late, great Christo­pher Lloyd of Great Dix­ter used to plant snow­drops among them, en­hanced by the rusty knuck­les. New fronds cover up the fad­ing snow­drop fo­liage. There are sev­eral dif­fer­ent forms and the Cris­tata Group has crested tips. Use­ful in a con­tainer is ‘Lin­earis Poly­dactyla’ with finely-chis­elled, min­i­mal­ist fronds, while ‘Bar­ne­sii’ has lacy fronds. The Hi­malayan form of D. wal­lichi­ana has bright green fo­liage and jet black bris­tles. Frilly hart’s-tongues Tuck As­ple­nium scolopen­drium, hart’s-tongue fern, in a re­ally shady po­si­tion be­cause the leaves scorch and turn brown in sum­mer sun. They of­ten have frilly-edged tongue-shaped leaves and the finest ‘scol­lie’ is un­doubt­edly ‘Crispum Bolton’s No­bile’ be­cause the leaves can reach 10cm (4in) across with pleas­ing gof­fer­ing (wavy edg­ing), but it’s ex­pen­sive and dif­fi­cult to find. How­ever, there are lots of vari­able, cheaper scol­lies that make hand­some ad­di­tions in deep shade that’s not too dry. Tidy up dam­aged fronds in spring. Leath­ery-leaved poly­podies Polypodium is per­fect for a well-drained, airy po­si­tion, such as wood­land edges. They suf­fer from a fun­gal prob­lem that black­ens their leath­ery fo­liage if it’s too hu­mid. They go dor­mant in late sum­mer be­fore pro­duc­ing new fronds in au­tumn. Dis­cov­ered on a cliff in south Wales in 1668, Polypodium cam­bricum ‘Richard Kayse’ has bright green ser­rated fronds that look tremen­dous in win­ter light. Bristly polystichum Mean­ing ‘many bris­tled’ most polystichum have rust-coloured bris­tles and green fronds. Many pro­duce a shut­tle­cock of growth, so keep the cen­tral part free from dead leaves. Polystichum setiferum, soft-shield fern, has been widely col­lected and raised. Un­furl­ing S-shaped crosiers in April, it looks hand­some planted among ery­thro­nium ‘White Beauty’. ‘Plu­mo­so­mul­ti­lobum Den­sum’ has 3-D moss-like fronds re­sem­bling tiny fir trees. Other polystichums are as del­i­cate and lacy as pa­per doilies.

Un­furl­ing S-shaped crosiers... look hand­some among ery­thro­nium

Ev­er­green ferns make hand­some part­ners for hostas in sum­mer

Polystichum setiferum

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