UNITED STATES—Without color or fragrance of flowers, ferns provide some of the most distinctive foliage in the garden. They do not turn color in autumn. Only a few tree ferns develop sculptural branch structure. Yet, they do their job well, and many are happy to do so in spots that are a bit too shady for other plants.
Almost all ferns are low perennials that produce foliage that arches outward from the center. Some can get quite broad. A few tree ferns grow upward on trunks (although the trunks are merely tough roots that grow through decomposing stems). Australian tree ferns can get quite tall and broad where sheltered from wind.
The staghorn fern is a weird epiphyte that naturally clings to tree trunks or rock outcroppings where it collects organic debris that falls from trees above. In home gardens, it is popularly grown on wooden plaques or as a hanging plant. Hanging plants do not necessarily need pots, or sometimes engulf their pots as they grow.
Leaves of ferns are known as ‘fronds,’ and with few exceptions, are intricately lobed or divided into smaller leaflets known as ‘pinnae,’ which are arranged on opposite sides of leafstalks known as ‘rachi’ (or singularly as ‘rachis’). The staghorn fern has unusually branched but otherwise unlobed fronds. The bird’s next fern has has distinctively simple fronds without any lobes or pinnae.
Most of the popular ferns are naturally understory plants that grow below larger plants. Even most tree ferns grow amongst larger trees. This is why so many ferns tolerate shade so well. In fact, many prefer partial shade, and will actually fade or scorch if too exposed. However, it is also why so many ferns prefer rich soil with an abundance of organic matter.
Maidenhair, rabbit’s foot, bird’s nest, holly, Boston and a few other ferns are popular as houseplants. Because home interiors are somewhat arid for them (lacking humidity), some ferns like to be misted daily. Ferns respond well to regular but light application of fertilizer. Too much fertilizer can roast foliage.
Because ferns are not expected to bloom, nitrogen (which can inhibit bloom for some plants) is not a problem. Ferns that are out in the garden can therefore get fish emulsion or a bit of the same sort of nitrogen fertilizers that keep lawns green.
Highlight: Boston fern
It is not actually from Boston. The first Boston fern, Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Bostoniensis’ was merely discovered in Boston, as a mutant in a shipment of otherwise normal ferns. Unlike the more upright parent plants, Boston fern has softly arching fronds that can hang vertically at the ends.
The fronds are typically about a foot and a half long, and can be a few feet long in humid and partly shady environments. Each frond is comprised of many pinnae that are neatly arranged on both sides of a wiry rachis (leaf stalk). Each leaflet is an inch or two long or longer. Delicate aerial roots sometimes dangle below the foliage.
Through the 1970s, Boston fern was one of the most popular houseplants. Yet, it really prefers more humidity than it gets inside. It is actually happier on porches or in atriums where it is sheltered from frost and harsh sun exposure. It prefers partial shade outside, but likes abundant ambient sunlight as a houseplant.