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Native ferns

Native ferns are the perfect choice for shady areas, providing a cool, lush look with a variety of textures.  They add some height to a garden without adding confusion. They are particularly effective when planted en masse. A few species will also tolerate sun if they get enough moisture. Ferns can be divided into "clumpers" and "spreaders."

Semi-evergreen clumping ferns


These ferns form clumps, with the fronds bowing away from the center. These look great if you leave ample room between plants, since the fronds show off best when seen in profile, and overlapping will interfere with their symmetry.

  • Marginal, Spinulose and Intermediate Wood Ferns - (Dryopteris marginalis, carthusiana and intermedia) These ferns are similar in appearance, preferring moist but well-drained soil. 

  • Cinnamon Fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) - Nice bright color with a fertile frond that looks like a stick of cinnamon. It needs constant moisture and can grow in very wet soil or a container with no drainage hole.

  • Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) - A very versatile, evergreen fern that can grow in dry or wet conditions. Because its color is so dark, it may not show much during the growing season, but when other plants die back, it stands out well.

Brandywine museum ferns.JPG

Click on the photos to enlarge and see the names.

Deciduous spreading ferns - relatively fast spreaders


These ferns spread by runners and are a good choice if you want a colony.​

  • Lady Fern (Athyrium felix-femina) The fronds are lacy cut. Tolerates more dryness than most ferns.

  • Eastern Hay-scented Fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) - It does smell like hay when it turns golden in the fall. This can spread prolifically.

  • Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)  - This can spread rampantly once it settles in. Can tolerate full sun if kept moist or wet.

  • Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis) - A very prolific spreader, it is “sensitive” to cold and drought.

  • Bracken Fern (Pterideum aquilinum) - Hardy and vigorous but may spread too much. It can be difficult to control once established due to deep, creeping rootstock.

  • New York Fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis) - Similar to Lady Fern.

Click on the photos to enlarge and see the names.


Deciduous spreading ferns - really slow spreaders


These ferns spread on runners but so slowly that they might as well be clumpers.

  • Northern Maidenhead Fern (Adiantum pedatum) - Unique foliage arranged in a semi-circular pattern. Does best in lighter shade and consistent dampness.

  • Goldie’s Fern (Dryopteris goldiana) - Three to four feet tall and upright, it spreads very slowly by rhizomes.

  • Interrupted Fern (Osmunda claytoniana) - This most ancient of ferns, dating back to the Triassic, can grow up to 5 feet tall in constant moisture.

  • Royal Fern (Osmunda spectabilis) - Totally different shape to its foliage. Needs wet or at least constantly moist soil. In ideal conditions, it can grow up to 6 feet tall.

  • Marsh Fern (Thelypteris palustris) - A good choice for the margin of a pond, it prefers full sun in wet soil. “Palustris” means “of the marsh.”

Click on the photos to enlarge and see the names.

All ferns look like clumps when they are in a pot at the garden center, so don’t be fooled!


For a primordial look, tuck a fern under the overhang of a fallen tree, which will also provide more moisture to the plant, or grow them on a rotting stump.


A ruff of evergreen ferns is the perfect solution to shrubs that get scruffy- ooking at the base as they get taller.


Spring ephemerals are a great choice under deciduous ferns, fading away as the ferns come into their own.

Ferns make a lovely groundcover, though they might not be the best choice if you have dogs that like to run around in your garden breaking the fronds. Windy locations may also be problematic for the taller species.

Northern Maidenhead Fern - Adiantum peda
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