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NC State Extension

Not-So-Delicate Ferns Add Versatility and Texture

Autumn Fern Photo by Robert E. Lyons

Autumn Fern
Photo by Robert E. Lyons

Ferns are one of the most popular and versatile groups of plants. Though many of us may think of the fussy little plants in the plant section at grocery stores or the ones used in hanging baskets, the hardy ferns are quite different. They are as dependable as any perennial.

North Carolina is home to many varieties of hardy ferns. Although they may look delicate and hard to grow, once they become established in the right spot they grow with very little care or maintenance. Most ferns prefer filtered sunlight, though many can tolerate dense shade or direct sun. Keep the soil evenly moist, but not soggy, and rich in organic material– similar to a natural forest habitat.

Hardy ferns come in a large range of colors and textures. They are a good solution when you want to soften the lines of hedges and fences. They provide wonderful backdrops for other plants and can add texture and color underneath existing foundation plantings. Whether in mass plantings or combined with hostas, astilbes and other shade-loving perennials, they make an interesting addition to any North Carolina garden. Most hardy ferns prefer a slightly acidic soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5.

Japanese Silver Painted FernPhoto by Robert E. Lyons

Japanese Silver Painted Fern
Photo by Robert E. Lyons

One of the finest of the hardy ferns is the Christmas fern, Polystichum acrostichoides, an evergreen fern that grows in zones 3 to 9. The hay-scented fern, Dennstaedtia punctilobula, does well in zones 3 to 7 and is drought tolerant. It will even withstand salt spray. When its fronds are crushed they emit a smell similar to freshly mown hay.

Find these plants in local garden centers and from numerous catalog sources. Be sure to check your site conditions to ensure the best plant for that location before making a purchase.

To learn more, visit the JC Raulston Arboretum (JCRA) at NC State University. Sheer variety defines the JCRA’s fern collections and pure texture typifies their impact in the garden. Meander through the Lath House for some great new ideas!