With Fronds Like These, Who Needs Anemones?
Bob Brown, from Cotswold Garden Flowers, with his recommendations on wintergreen ferns for winter interest - 09 September 2016
Gardeners usually think of ferns as a solution to a shade problem. They’re better than that and, yes they do grow in shade – both damp and dry - but they also grow in sun (think bracken) and partial shade and pots and alpine troughs. And they’re not all green and ferny. They can provide colour highlights in mixed plantings, interesting foliage textures and dramatic shapes to catch the eye. Amongst the most useful and rewarding are the ones that are wintergreen which provide solace and lift depression. Think ferns.
There were two big influences that drew me to them. A great aunt, with whom I spent more than one summer, had a brick path which led to the back door, with outhouses on one side and a brick wall on the other. Running the length of the path, squeezed into a gap, were ancient gnarled clumps of what was probably native male fern. In summer it brushed against my bare legs (short trousers) and smelled ‘ferny’. The quality of the fern and planting was nothing special but I can recall the sensation of cool shade in endless hot summer weather, the scent and the stroking. Then as a new nurseryman in 1991 a customer showed me a shady corner by her French windows. A few stones held back a slightly raised flower bed and amongst the stones and in the bed she’d planted a variety of short green ferns with different textures with some mind-you-own-business, primroses and snowdrops. It was primrose time, so the snowdrops had gone over, but this mini landscape was perfect and from that time on I was looking for a similar site to begin planting a replicate for me.
Many commonly available kinds are cultivars of native species. These send to be tough and persistent and, unlike people, get more and more beautiful the older they get. Most grow everywhere very easily. My favourites are any forms of the soft shield fern Polystichum setiferum. This is evergreen and can be established anywhere that isn’t the worst dry shade under trees. The fronds swirl out of the clump. If you like flat fronds the most elegant must be ‘Bevis’, which has long fronds that gradually narrow and curve at the end. I know one that’s two metres wide and a little over a metre tall in a shady courtyard with nothing else in the vicinity. Nothing else is called for. Personally, I prefer the thick fluffy fronds of ‘Plumosum Densum’ which I use and reuse in plantings with Veratrum, Camellia, Ophiopogon, Phlox and so on. Somewhere between the two extremes of flat and thick and fluffy are ‘Herrenhausen’ and ‘Wollaston’. These swirl and have rusty scales amongst the pinnae on the fronds giving them lovely textures.
Polystichum setiferum 'Herrenhausen'
Amongst the toughest natives – plants which will even grow in dry shady places as well as everywhere else - are the polypodies. The usual form has wiggly fronds up to 30cm long. In the wet west and north you’ll see it on tree trunks; in Essex it grows in the ground. There are many beautiful forms which make weed-proof mats, slowly extending sideways with teddy bear-like surface rhizomes. The most interesting cultivar was taken from a cliff north of Cardiff and introduced by Richard Kayse of Bristol in 1668. It has broad evergreen bipinnate fronds of exceptional form. By the twentieth century it had been lost to cultivation. In 1980, Martin Rickard took binoculars and went in search of the original plant. To his amazement there it was – exactly as portrayed in Victorian books. He sought permission from the landowner and the Department of the Environment (it was in an SSSI), hired a climber who abseiled down the cliff and Martin re-introduced it. There are lots more good forms. I have a selected sporeling of polypody I call ‘Parsley’, with fluffy wintergreen fronds, and there are ones with curvaceous segments on the frond that give them a cuddly look like ‘Pulchritude’. Polypodies are wintergreen rather than evergreen because they lose their fronds in June and July. No-one notices their absence then because so much is going on around them at that time.
Athyrium felix-femina 'Minutussimum’
If you want colour I’d head to Athyrium or some forms of Dryopteris. These are ferns that mostly dislike the driest soils. Athyrium felix-femina is the lady fern – a native of Britain. It has some of the most exquisite and sought-after forms but it’s herbaceous, not evergreen, and only has green fronds. The coloured forms come from Japan and Korea. A.otophorum var.okanum has creamy-green fronds with the midribs outlined in dark maroon red. I have it growing with Heuchera ‘Bronze Beauty’ and a cream variegated shrub. I have a strip of A.nipponicum ‘Silver Ghost’ which is simply light pale grey and maroon – lightening a dark dank entrance. A.nipponicum ‘Ursula’s Red’ has much more maroon and less grey. Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’ has new fronds that start a fairly fierce orange and slowly go green persisting through the winter. New fronds are produced all spring and summer, giving it a long season of effect.
Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’
For sheer shape, good enough to merit isolation in a pot, or surrounded by paving, I’d choose forms of the hart’s tongue fern, for example the seersucker-like crinkles of Asplenium scolopendrium ‘Crispum’ (with a damp neutral or alkaline soil); Blechnum cordatum, with crab-claw like segments as the fronds unfurl - if you have acid soil; or the sculpted foliage of Dryopteris sieboliana (which isn’t fussy). You need to dismiss all preconceptions of fern, particularly of male fern, with this Dryopteris. It has broad fronds with long rounded thick leathery segments. It’s evergreen, which is useful. For an eyecatcher, the holly fern Cyrtomium falcatum is good. This has shiny, deep dark green segments on relatively long elegant fronds. It likes ordinary soil in sheltered conditions. If I was seeking a more conventional fern sculpture I reckon Matteucia struthiopteris, or shuttlecock fern, is the winner. It grows in any decent soil that’s not too dry. This spreads by underground rhizomes, so confining it in a pot is difficult, and it’s herbaceous, but there’s nothing like a patch of the huge elegant shuttlecocks.
Asplenium scolopendrium 'Angustatum' planted with Aspidistra elatior in a very shady corner
I’ve mentioned ground cover in connection with polypodies but there are other candidates too. I have a patch of the hardy maidenhead fern Adiantum venustum clothing the ground in a difficult rooty and shaded site beneath an Akebia quinata. It sweeps out and into some Agapanthus and Crocosmia. Books will tell you that it’s evergreen except in the coldest winters but I report very little damage to the evergreen fronds even in those two winters we had in 2010. Nor have I ever had to remove a weed from it only to tug off new tendrils of the Akebia which occasionally pop out.
Truly, with fronds like these, who needs anemones?
Bob Brown owns Cotswold Garden Flowers and is a renowned plantsman, speaker and garden writer. The specialist nursery, based in Evesham, stocks a huge range of unusual perennials, with a focus on good old-fashioned plants, newly introduced plants bred for not only colour and form but for vigour as well, and plants newly introduced from the wild.