By Dr. Leonard Perry
Northern New England’s ferns are spectacular, both in the wild and in cultivation. The variety of size, form, and texture is remarkable, and the various habitats where these ferns thrive are somewhat surprising. These ferns are usually available at garden centers although you may have to contact a specialty nursery to find some of them.
Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum), 18 inches tall, is the daintiest of the native ferns. Its black stems are topped with a fan-like arrangement of pinnae (leaf-like segments). It does best in filtered light and well-drained, cool soil. This fern spreads fairly slowly.
Lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) is quite variable, reaching 18 to 36 inches in height. It is easy to grow, making this a good fern for beginners. Lady fern produces a vigorous flush of reddish-green growth in the spring when it is at its most spectacular. It does best in shady conditions with moist to wet soil.
Hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) reaches two feet in height and spreads fairly rapidly. You can easily control the spread by pulling out some of the growth in spring. It does best in full sun to partial shade and tolerates rather hot, dry sites. Hay-scented fern produces apple-green, lacy fronds that lend a delicate texture to the garden.
Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) is a three-foot fern that produces gracefully arching fronds. The stiff fertile fronds arise in the middle of each clump, reach two feet in height, and persist into the winter. The early spring fiddleheads are edible. Ostrich fern does best in sun to partial shade and moist soil.
Cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), along with the other members of this genus, 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 appear first in spring, first green and later turning cinnamon-brown. Next, the handsome fiddleheads unfurl into three-foot arching sterile fronds, which have cinnamon-colored fibers along their base. In fall, these fronds turn golden. This fern does best in a shady site with moist soil.
Interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana) is unusual for its sterile, three-foot tall fronds that have brown spore cases in the middle with green pinnae both above and below. Interrupted fern performs best in a shady site with moist soil, but it does better in higher light and drier soil than most ferns.
Royal fern (Osmunda regalis) forms a three-foot, vase-shaped clump. The wiry roots were once aggressively harvested and used as a growing medium for orchids. The plant’s smooth fiddleheads develop into bright green fronds. Light brown spore cases develop on top of the fertile fronds, giving rise to another common name, “flowering fern.” Royal fern does best in shade or sun and a moist organic soil.
Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is one of the few evergreen ferns of Northern New England. The leathery fronds reach 18 inches in height. This is a durable and unfussy fern that is not overly aggressive and is easy to incorporate into the moist shady garden.