Evergreen Ferns for Shade & Stylish Blogger Award

Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, PA, specializing in showy, colorful, and unusual plants for shade.  The only plants that we ship are snowdrops and miniature hostas.  For catalogues and announcements of events, please send your full name, location, and phone number (for back up use only) to carolyn@carolynsshadegardens.com.  Click here to get to the home page of our website for catalogues and information about our nursery and to subscribe to our blog.

US. native hart’s-tongue fern, Phyllitis scolopendrium, is especially beautiful in my garden in the spring as it unfurls, April 2010

Spring is in the wind here today with unseasonably warm temperatures of almost 70 degrees F (21 C).  The ten day forecast shows more seasonable temperatures with highs in the mid-forties.  Although spring is definitely on the way (it snowed and went down to 10 degrees since I wrote this!), the beauty of snow has been replaced with the grays and browns of late winter, not a look I treasure.  That makes any plants that liven up the gardens very important at this time of year, and evergreen ferns do just that.  Five of my favorites are profiled below.

Hart’s-tongue fern is also very beautiful in the fall, mid-November 2010 with Christmas rose and pulmonaria

Hart’s-tongue fern, Phyllitis scolopendrium (zones 5 to 9), may be my favorite all time fern (today anyway).  It has a very unique look that is absolutely magical when it unfurls in the spring (photo at top), and it maintains its good looks until it disappears under the snow (photo above).  Even now it is quite presentable after our snowy and icy winter with only slight browning.

Although I call it a US native, hart’s tongue fern is actually indigenous to Europe, Asia, and North America, including the mid-Atlantic.  However, according to John Mickel in Ferns for American Gardens, the US variety does poorly in cultivation, and all cultivated material is from the European variety.  It is a clump-forming fern, growing 8 to 16″ tall with shiny, leathery fronds.  It is easy to grow but suffers if over-watered and must be well-drained.  I grow mine in part shade on a slope with plenty of organic matter.  In the wild it is limestone-loving, but I haven’t found this to be necessary in my garden.

Japanese holly fern, Cyrtomium falcatum, makes quite a statement in my mid-November garden

Japanese holly fern, Cyrtomium falcatum (zones 6 to 10), is another favorite of mine.  Individual plants grown as a specimen can be up to 2 feet tall and 3 feet across making quite a bold statement in the garden.  It grows well in the deep shade of my woodland garden where there is more construction rubble than soil as well as on my partly shaded but very open back slope.  Right now it is serving as a backdrop for the giant snowdrops, Galanthus elwesii, that are emerging between its fronds, which have been flattened by snow.

Japanese holly fern is native to Hawaii (do we call it a US native?), southern Africa, and across southern Asia.  Although it is uncommon in the mid-Atlantic, it is quite commonly grown in the southern parts of the US and has naturalized in some areas.  It is clump-forming with an elegant, vase-like habit and 4 to 7″ wide, glossy dark green fronds with toothed pinnae that resemble holly leaves.  It prefers good drainage and organic soil in part to full shade.

U.S. native deer fern, Blechnum spicant, also shines in my mid-November garden

Deer fern, Blechnum spicant (zones 5 to 8), was new to my garden in spring of 2010 so, despite its moist native habitat, it survived  this summer’s record-breaking heat and drought.  The unusual texture provided by its linear segments is a great addition to the border in front of my fall-blooming camellias.  It is in an eastern-facing location with high shade.  Right now, though flattened by the snow and ice, the fronds look almost the same as in the photo above despite our hard winter.

Deer fern is native to moist coniferous forests in the US Pacific Northwest and Europe.  Its two types of fronds are very distinct.  The sterile fronds (pictured above) are 8 to 20″ long, evergreen, and prostrate, while the fountain-like fertile fronds, which emerge in the spring, are 16 to 24″ long,  deciduous, and erect.  It puts on quite a show in the spring.  Deer fern grows in part to full shade in acid soil enriched with organic matter and spreads slowly by short creeping rhizomes.

Tassel fern, Polystichum polyblepharum, growing in dry shade at the base of my Kentucky coffee tree in mid-November

Tassel fern, Polystichum polyblepharum (zones 5 to 8), is a very trouble-free, evergreen fern that I have grown for years.  I found that it does not do well in full shade, but thrives in high shade with dappled light.  It is absolutely gorgeous in the spring, when the reddish, hairy new fronds unfurl  (photo below) and still looks spectacular at the end of a hot dry summer (photo above).  Right now it is flat to the ground exposing its fleecy stems even more.

The bristly new fronds of tassel fern unfurl, photo courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden PlantFinder

Tassel fern is native to Japan and southern Korea.  According to Mickel, its species name means “many eyelashes” referring to its bristly, pubescent stems, which are really quite eye-catching even when fully emerged.  Its lustrous dark green fronds form an elegant, vase-like crown 2 feet tall and 2 feet wide.  It makes an excellent specimen.  Grow it in part shade in a well-drained, humus-rich site.

U.S. native Christmas fern, Polystichum acrostichoides, is ornamental 365 days a year in my garden, photo courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden PlantFinder

Christmas fern, Polystichum acrostichoides (zones 3 to 9), is without a doubt the best evergreen fern for mid-Atlantic US gardens.  It grows well everywhere in my garden from my deeply shaded woodland to more sunny, rocky slopes.  Right now, although not as upright as the photo above, it is the most presentable evergreen fern after our long, hard winter.

Christmas fern growing an a rocky outcropping in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Tennessee

Christmas fern is native to the whole eastern half of North America, including all of Pennsylvania.  According to Mickel, its common name arose because it was used by early settlers as Christmas decorations.  The lance-shaped, dark green, leathery fronds provide excellent winter interest.  The two foot tall, fountain-like clumps increase in size over time, forming multiple crowns and making it easy to divide.  Christmas fern is very easy to grow in part shade to full shade and in moist to dry soil and can be used on slopes to prevent erosion.

I hope I have convinced you to go outside and investigate where you can add some evergreen ferns for year round interest.

Please let me know in a comment/reply what evergreen ferns you grow in your garden.


Notes: John Mickel is Curator of Ferns for the New York Botanical Gardens.  His book, Ferns for American Gardens, is an excellent resource discussing over 400 ferns with hundreds of photos.  I have added it to my sidebar under Books so you can always find it.

Every word that appears in orange on my blog is a link that you can click for more information.  If you want to return to my blog’s homepage to access the sidebar information (catalogues, previous articles, etc.), just click here.

Nursery Happenings: I am currently accepting orders for snowdrops, including  mail orders.  For the catalogue and order information, click here.  I am taking reservations for my Hellebore Seminars for the Totally Obsessed.  For the brochure and registration information, click here.  I have three spaces left for the March 6 session of Charles Cresson’s Snowdrops and Other Winter Interest Plants Seminar.  For the brochure and registration information, click here.

I have recently been honored with the Stylish Blogger Award by six different blogs, and I want to thank them for the accolade.  My friends would really laugh to hear the word stylish applied to me as a person, but I am glad I am making up for that with my blog.  I am not following the award rules, but instead letting you know who gave me the award in hopes that you will visit their blogs.  Here are the links and some information to entice you to visit them:

Deb’s Garden: Deb shares her gardening experiences on 3.5 partially wooded acres in Helena, Alabama.

Island Threads: Frances battles the elements on the northern tip of an island off the northwest coast of Scotland.

Orchid de Dangau: Makirimi collects and grows orchids in Malaysia.

Southern Meadows: Karin writes about nature and gardening in northeastern Georgia.

Sweet Bean Gardening: Hanni is developing a cottage garden in Indiana with her two young daughters.

The Suburban Gardener: Lily specializes in lilies and hostas in her shady suburban Chicago, Illinois, garden.

66 Responses to “Evergreen Ferns for Shade & Stylish Blogger Award”

  1. The ferns you showed are beautiful. I especially like the first one. Actually my favorite fern is the staghorn fern but it recently died on me. I could have over fertilized it.

    I like the way you changed the rules of the award. I had thought ‘Stylish’ just didn’t blend in with my character. 🙂

  2. I think you are very stylish…I am very bad at keeping track of ferns I grow…my favs are the non-native Japanese Painted ferns…I have to log and keep track this year and add some more natives…I will do that and post…I was thinking this as I was reading your post…I need to add to my ferns and keep better track…so thx for that kick in the pants…

    • Donna, I think Japanese painted ferns are quite beautiful and useful with their attractive colors. In fact, I am carrying two new cultivars of them this spring: ‘Burgundy Lace’ and ‘Regal Red’. I need to make a master list of my ferns too. Carolyn

  3. Carolyn thank you for a lovely introduction to my blog and for linking to it,
    thanks also for another well written informative post, I think I have Deer fern growing wild near the lodge poles in my garden, if it isn’t Deer fern it is something that looks very similar, thanks for giving me an idea of what I have, Hart’s tongue is one of my fav ferns, I hesitate with growing ferns as I don’t think my soil is rich enough (I still envy you your leafmold) I also worry they won’t cope with the wind, you have given me lots to think about, Frances

  4. Hi Carolyn, I only know three of these, the Christmas fern, deer fern, and the holly fern. The Christmas fern grows everywhere here and while I have a few that volunteered in my garden I don’t have many but plan to rectify that soon. I used to grow the holly fern. One year it wintered over but it is not reliably hardy here so I gave it up. I did love it and even posted on it a few years ago. My favorite fern, not evergreen but it is a good fern, is the sensitive fern. I have tons of that one here and it is hasn’t been picky like some of the others I’ve tried. I wish it was evergreen but the tassels (seedspores maybe) remain brown and upright all winter. I am going to try the harts tongue fern and other two and try them out. I have a new woodland area that if I ever get worked out would be perfect.

  5. Hi Carolyn, those ferns are so healthy looking. I think all kinds of ferns are beautiful and if given proper place in an area they are so lovely. About your question, we have lots of ferns too here in the Philippines. Some of them even behave as weeds during the rainy season. I dont remember their scientific names but Boston fern, maidenhair ferns grow everywhere. In my garden i specifically planted staghorn fern and birds’ nest fern or Asplenium nidus. We still have lots of other ferns in the property, which are just volunteers.

    • Andrea, You are very lucky to have all kinds of ferns just growing on your property in the Philippines, although it seems pretty funny that one of them is called Boston fern. I am jealous that you can grow the really majestic ferns like staghorn. Carolyn

  6. Hi Carolyn – I don’t have any ferns in my garden but I am thinking about it. I particularly like your Hart’s-tongue fern. Beautiful. Ferns would do well in my shaded garden I think …

  7. Carolyn, I like all the ferns you profiled. I have the Tassel Fern and Christmas Fern in my woodland garden. This has me longing for the time when the fronds will start unfurling. Surely a few weeks away still. Thanks for the mention! I think your blog is very stylish indeed!

  8. I have the harts tongue fern, a few of them in fact, love it. I will certainly look for the others as well, I especially like the Japanese holly fern, but borderline hardy here, to bad.

  9. Carolyn, lovely native ferns, and a good selection too. I have trouble getting ferns started here. They are best grown in containers in my garden. I have some planted under my Viburnum, but they are only nice early in they year. Hostas grow like weeds, seemingly needing the same basic conditions, but are more tolerant of the heavy clay soils here.

  10. What lovely choices, and such helpful descriptions. We grow hart’s tongue fern in our English garden, but for some reason it has never really thrived. Now from your explanation I realise that the soil is probably too moist.

  11. Congrats on the accolades. You deserve them.

  12. gardeningasylum Says:

    The hart’s tongue fern is definitely a looker, but not generally offered in nurseries around here – might be worth a mail order. My own property is very ferny-licious, the Christmas ferns most beloved – as you point out, they are beautiful every day of the year.

    • Even though the fern book says it is commonly available, I have only been able to get it to sell at my nursery in about 3 of the 19 years I have been in business. Ferns in general are just not readily available, and I have to make an extra special effort to have them available for sale. I am not sure why. Carolyn

  13. Dear Carolyn, I bought four ferns for my shade garden back when I didn’t label or keep receipts. They do well and I love them. I will take pictures and ID them this year. However, I purchased a native fern sampler of 6 different varieties back in 2008 and planted them in the woodland garden … they did not do well and have pretty much disappeared. I think I planted them too close to where the deer hang out and the pesky creatures trampled them to death. Your ferns are lovely, and I am inspired to try again. P x

  14. A lovely post, Carolyn. I wish that I had more shade in my current garden so that I could grow ferns! I used to have several in a previous garden…I loved to watch them unfolding in the spring. 🙂

  15. Well you certainly have some very stylish ferns Carolyn! Which I suppose is no surprise given your love of plants for shade. I particularly love that Japanese Holly fern, wonderfully architectural.

  16. A great post! I’ve got all thoses except the Tassel Fern. In my woodland garden along a stream they are all thriving as well as a few others. The Hart’s Toungue is so great, I’ve got it under a giant White Pine, so it obviously doesn’t mind the soil acidity. Lady ferns and Maiderhair ferns grow here in abundance too! they are so pretty and frilly.

  17. I love ferns~I have great success with Christmas fern~it’s adapted to the dry summers wonderfully. A woodland garden with ferns feels 10 degrees cooler on a hot summer day~ gail

  18. Gorgeous colour with the ferns and congratulations on the award – it’s very stylish here!

  19. I love that you call Hart’s tongue fern your favourite – for today anyway! So often I become enraptured with a plant only to move on to another one a short time later.

  20. Dear Carolyn, yours is most certainly a stylish blog regardless of the rules as you always provide great information that is so well illustrated. Ferns are plants I should grow more of in my garden but have only recently begun to love them as associated them with the Victorians. I need Evergreen ferns that do well in dryish shade which may not always be the most attractive but certainly keep the backbone of the garden upright.

  21. I’m a big fan of ferns. Down here in the great sandy, humid, hot – Holly Ferns and Autumn Ferns rule the shade. Holly Ferns re (spore?) themselves very easily too, which has led me to many gifts of ferns.

    As far as my constant anthropomorphizing… I just can’t help it! I do sort of think of lots of plants and other inanimate objects as being he or she. Not intentionally, and they don’t have names, but some plants are definitely ‘he’s’ and some are obviously (to me!) ‘she’s’!

    • Jess, Thanks for mentioning autumn fern because I could easily have included it in my evergreen fern profile. I was cleaning out my beds today and noticed that it is providing a nice evergreen backdrop to winter aconite, which is in full bloom. Carolyn

  22. Hello Carolyn, Ferns are one of our favourite plants. I recall some forty years ago when starting off in gardening and may I say not knowing any better, we would go out to the countryside and dig up wild ferns for our garden which of course was no more than bracken. Oh my god we would also dig up tree saplings, I think we would be beheaded these days. We also have the Harts tongue Fern which is a firm favourite of ours. Another which we like is the Japanese painted fern Athyrium nipponicum pictum, always looks like it is struggling to survive in early Spring but comes in to its full glory in mid Summer.

    • Alistair, Forty years ago we (and everyone else) used to throw all our metal and glass trash into the ocean in Maine (hence beach glass). Now we know better–it’s a learning experience. I am very fond of the Japanese painted fern. I will have to do a part two on deciduous ferns. Carolyn

  23. Beautiful ferns Carolyn, some of which I haven’t seen before. Here I don’t really grow ferns, but we do have a number of species on the property that grow without any care or attention from me. Our Western Sword ferns are the most prominent and numerous of our evergreen ferns, and I’m very grateful that volunteer here so freely beneath our redwoods.

  24. Hi Carolyn, I’m way late in replying to your post, as I have been away for several days. But I’m glad I didn’t miss it! I love evergreen ferns, but I have had a surprisingly difficult time finding ones that thrive in my garden. Autumn fern is the one that does the best, even surviving our summer drought with little attention. Holly fern is another one that has survived. There is a wild fern, some sort of southern wood fern, I think, that grows in abundance in the valley behind my house. It is deciduous, but I am going to transplant some into my woodlands this spring. I would also love to try the harts tongue.

    I see that others appreciate your blog! And thanks for the link to my own blog. You are the greatest!

  25. Congratulation on your multiple Stylish Blogger awards.

    Now ferns, of how I love ferns. I had a fern garden years ago. I collected native ferns from all over North Carolina. I could not have told you half of the names of the varieties. When we moved an older neighbor called and reporter the first thing the new owner did was mowed down and kill my pride and joy. I have never had as much of a success with them since that time. I very much enjoyed this post (sigh).

    • Cheri, I knew you were a closet gardener. Have you tried all native ferns of NC at your new place like you did at your old? If not, do it again. I am not sure you needed to know what happened to your ferns after you left—sad. Ferns grow in all different types of soil and light conditions just like other plants. Many gardeners just assume they need to be in moist shade when actually some of the ferns in my article will rot over the winter if they are not well-drained. However, in the general scheme of gardening they are pretty easy to grow. Carolyn

  26. Great fern photos, the Hart’s-tongue fern looks like it’s right out of the tropics. Amazing that it survives in cold climates as well. I want one!

    • Nat, I agree. Although it’s not that tall, hart’s tongue fern gives a decidedly tropical look to the garden. Japanese holly fern also looks like a tree fern without a trunk. I have a lot of ferns and really need to make a comprehensive list. I also make an effort to have a really good selection for sale at my nursery. Carolyn

  27. Personally a big fan of Ghost fern and other Athyriums.

  28. I associate ferns with mediterranean climate and some shady patios in summer (cultural reminiscens) so it defintely must be some spring in the air! Definitely your blog deserves an award!

  29. A lovely post on evergreen ferns, Carolyn. I adore all ferns, my all-time favorite plant ~ your hart’s-tongue fern, especially charming.

  30. Hi Carolyn, Ferns are a favorite and surprisingly, we can grow quite a few here in Central Texas! I’ve got Japanese holly fern and river fern. The delicate river fern is coming to life as we speak!

  31. I love your ferns Carolyn! The colors in the November garden photo with the J. holly fern are beautiful! I so enjoy seeing the feathery heads of ferns unfurl. I am wondering how deer fern got its name. Are we planting it for their consumption? Lovely post!

  32. wow, the hart’s tongue fern is so beautiful and quirky!

  33. […] Carolyn’s Shade Gardens has a nice article from a few years ago available on ferns. […]

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