Volume 23 Issue 2, Summer 2018
by Anne Owen, Audubon at Home Ambassador
With so much recent focus on the plight of pollinators and the drive to provide gardens full of nourishing native plants to support them, it’s easy for the humble ferns to be overlooked. Yet a walk in the beautiful Loudoun woodlands, for example at Banshee Reeks, reveals that they are a significant element of a balanced habitat for native wildlife and as so are deserving of space in our yards. Indeed, they may provide a great solution for a shady, damp spot that is otherwise hard to fill.
Ferns are non-flowering plants that reproduce by spores. Most ferns are deciduous, dropping their fronds in winter, with characteristic curled “fiddleheads,” or croziers, emerging from the crown in spring. Most prefer part to full shade and moist conditions, but some will also thrive in drier or sunnier spots. From a wildlife point of view, ferns can give structure that provides foraging space and shelter for ground-feeding birds, while other critters, for example frogs and turtles, like to hide in them. Ferns are generally resistant to browsing by rabbits.
Cinnamon Fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) grows best in moist to wet soils in part to full shade, though it will also tolerate full sun if it is in standing water all the time. It typically grows in clumps, 2-4 feet tall. In spring spore-bearing stiff, fertile spikes appear, turning chocolate brown, resembling giant cinnamon sticks and providing a dramatic accent. The fuzz that covers the young fiddleheads is a favorite nesting material for birds. Most sources suggest that deer have a low preference for this plant.
Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) is also best in moist to wet, rich, humusy, acidic soils, but will adapt to less favorable conditions and can tolerate nearly full sun if it has consistent moisture. This is a tall, deciduous fern with broad fronds that have large, well-separated pinnae (leaflets). Spores form in brown, tassel-like clusters at the tips of the fronds, giving the alternative common name of “flowering fern.”
Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) is another clump-forming fern that requires part to full shade and moist to wet conditions. The stately fronds are finely dissected, or feathery, giving the appearance of long ostrich plumes. This fern is best massed in a shady, moist area, possibly in conjunction with early spring flowers such as trilliums, bloodroot or Dutchman’s breeches, which will be approaching dormancy as the fern reaches full size.
Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis) has somewhat unusual fronds, with bright green, leathery, triangular pinnae (leaflets) that have distinctively netted veins. Though native to swampy conditions, it will do quite well in average garden soils as long as it is not allowed to dry out. It will also tolerate sun. The fronds are very sensitive to drought as well as the first fall frost — hence its common name.
Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is evergreen (or at least green until Christmas, hence the name!), requiring part to full shade but dry to medium moisture. In fact, it will not tolerate standing water, and poor drainage can lead to crown-rot. This fern will not spread aggressively, though clumps will increase in size over time. Deer show little interest in this plant.
If you would like to find out more about providing habitat for wildlife on your own property and the Audubon at Home program, please contact Anne Owen at email@example.com for more information
Native Plants for Northern Virginia: https://www.novaregion.org/DocumentCenter/View/10615/Northern- Virginia-Native-Plant-Guide—FINAL
Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder: www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/plantfinder/plantfindersearch.aspx
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Native Plants Database: www.wildflower.org/plants/