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Wed, Feb. 19

Feather-like ferns are nature’s original foundation plants

Just what is it about ferns that makes landscaping with them so popular? Are people hungry for plants that appear fresh and green after trudging through another long, monochromatic winter? Or are people simply hungry for fresh greens?

Ferns are among the first perennials to show growth in the spring. They send up small stems with tips curled tightly in the shape of violin scrolls (fiddleheads) that straighten gradually into delicate, featherlike fronds.

More than 12,000 species of ferns have been identified, some dating back 300 million years. Ferns come in every imaginable shade of green. Some come variegated and a few come tri-colored (Japanese) in a hybrid display of purple, gray and green. Ferns vary in size from the aptly named mosquito fern, which has fronds only about one-sixteenth of an inch long, to the tree fern, with fronds extending 12 feet. But it is the ostrich fern that’s so eminently edible when young, or when in the “fiddlehead” stage.

“All ferns have fiddleheads as they mature at the base of the tip. But the ostrich fern is the only one that can be safely eaten,” says John Mickel, a senior curator at The New York Botanical Garden, author of “Ferns for American Gardens,” and a fiddlehead fancier. “Many other varieties are eaten, but many of those are believed carcinogenic.”

Aficionados describe their taste as a combination of asparagus, spinach, nuts and wild mushrooms. Left growing too long, however, the flavor of a fiddlehead can become grassy and bitter. “Harvest them young and wash off the scales,” Mickel says. “Boil or steam them five minutes, then add them to a salad or have them as a snack.”

Ferns have an undeserved reputation for being difficult to grow, he says. That may come from the mistaken belief ferns only can be grown from spores.

“Spore growing is time consuming and a process that requires a great amount of care and patience,” Mickel says. “Dividing plants from other people’s gardens or buying the plants themselves is much easier. Simply take a spade and split the plant, bringing with it as much root and soil as possible.”

Plant ferns in shade — dappled shade is best. Few ferns tolerate full sun although there are exceptions.

“Ferns are like a lot of shade-loving plants,” Mickel says. “The amount of sun they can take is directly proportional to the amount of soil moisture. Marsh ferns and other swampy things can do well in full sun if they get plenty of moisture.”

Ferns are resilient if handled properly, says Judith Jones, a commercial grower from Gold Bar, Wash. “Most woodland ferns that are commercially available are remarkably tolerant of widely varying conditions when grown in light shade with modest moisture in humus-rich soil,” says Jones, who ships her plants nationwide.

She believes ferns should only be sold with well-developed root systems. “They don’t do well when shipped bare-rooted because their hair-like roots dry quickly and are easily damaged if mishandled,” Jones says. “It takes a bare-rooted plant at least a season or two to recover and continue growing whereas one that has a nice root ball settles in and starts increasing in size immediately.”

Ferns look great when used as stand-alone plants in shaded corners, as foundation foliage masking the drab look of concrete blocks, as the centerpiece in foliage or shade gardens, as bird and animal habitat around trees and fences, as groundcover for otherwise eroding slopes and in hanging baskets, displayed inside or out.

“They’re also deer-proof,” Mickel says. “Hostas and tulips rate high on the menu for foraging deer, but ferns are pretty much the last browse chosen.”

There is a great deal to appreciate in a fern, Mickel says. “Ferns are great because they’re thriving and fresh throughout much of the year while other flowers have a couple of weeks with their showy acts and then they go down and out.”

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