Create woodland drama with wintergreen ferns
These feathery, unfurling beauties are indispensable for shady corners. Val Bourne nominates her favourites for a tricky spot
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.
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