Found in woodlands across Britain and many other countries on every continent which supports vegetation, ferns are rich perennial plants with long and exquisite foliage, often undergoing beautiful chromatic transformations from their unfolding in spring to their withering in autumn (although there are evergreen species as well). Species native to Britain are renowned for their resilience, whereas those brought from abroad, particularly Asia and North America, are known for their peculiar, charming appearance. Most ferns species spread through spores, which makes colonisation a natural and easy process.
In the wild, ferns grow in damp and shaded areas such as woodlands, riversides, stream sides and even swamplands. The same conditions of moisture and shade must be provided for them when purposely planted, as excessive sunlight and heat can cause them to burn or wither. Whereas a handful of species can grow well in soils with a high acidic content, as well as a reduced level of moisture, dimness and coolness must be provided to all species. They thrive besides ponds and streams, under trees and some even grow in awkward areas. For the best result, make sure to enrich the soil before planting, by adding organic matter.
It is well known that ferns were among the emblems of the Victorian era, as was the growing and hybridisation of ornamental plants in general, which produced many species still in demand today. The Victorian obsession with this plant was so pronounced that the term Petridomania was created in reference to it in mid 19th Century, meaning Fern Madness or Fern Craze. And indeed, the fern was not only intensely grown but used as an art motif as well on various items produced at the time, ranging from textiles to pottery. Ferns were studied, crossed, written about, cultivated in an incipient glasshouses, collected and so forth. The impact of this trend however was a negative one, as certain species decreased in the wild and are now scarcely seen.
Nowadays, ferns are appreciated by growers due to the fact that they require very low maintenance, if at all, and at the same time create a relaxing and wild-like atmosphere of rich foliage. They are also suitable for forcing indoors, if adequately watered, as they don’t require much sunlight.
There are approximately 75 known species of ferns native to Britain and their qualities are recognised by experts and amateur growers alike, making them highly recommendable for planting in a private garden. Moreover, some species are endangered due to the intense modification of Britain’s natural environment and an effort should be made to rescue them. Besides their aesthetic appeal, there is also an intense mystical aura to them, as their use in nature-related ritualistic practices has been intensely researched. Each species is named below in English, botanical Latin and Welsh.
Male Fern – Dryopteris filix-max – March Rhedynen
Definitely the most common species, it abounds in woodlands and other corners of vegetation across the country and therefore is very easy to grow. A single root generates around three feet of fronds, which are known to thrive in well-drained soils, provided that they get a sufficient amount of moisture when required. To romanticise the idea of growing it, many legends and speculations have appeared in the past with regards to its properties, both for healing and magical purposes.
Golden Scale Male Fern – Dryopteris affinis – Marchrhedynen Euriad
The name of this variety derives from its distinctive golden scales, which can be observed on newly grown fronds in spring. It is also found in the wild, although not as abundantly as the archetypal fern. It can reach 4 feet in height and, being evergreen, it will adorn a garden throughout the whole year.
Lady Fern – Athyrium filix-femina - Rhedynen Fair
Preferring moist soils, which is why it is frequently spotted on river and stream banks, this variety was named as such due to its daintiness. However, its appearance cannot be described as ranging between certain parameters as it comes in many forms and greatly varies in size. It can be as small as a few inches wide or it can stretch for as long as three feet, reaching the size of the Male Fern.
Hart’s Tongue – Asplenium scolopendrium – Tafod yr Hydd
Also thriving in soils which maintain their moisture throughout the year, this species is most commonly encountered on Britain’s offshore territories. It’s easily noticed due to its compact fronds, which are large and darker in colour compared to those of other varieties. It can be found in a broad range of habitats in the wild.
Hard Fern – Blechnum spicant – Gwib rhedynen
This evergreen species is prominent in north-western areas of many British islands, and unlike most ferns, grows well in soils with a higher acidic content and tolerates dryness better. In terms of shape, its fronds have often been compared to ladders. There are many varieties of this species across the world.
Broad Buckler Fern – Dryopteris austriaca – Marchredynen Lydan
Also a common sight across the British Isles in a variety of natural environments, the Broad Buckler Fern resembles the Male Fern by sharing many of its features, except its form, which is richer, as its fronds are pinnate three ways.
Royal Fern – Osmunda regalis - Rhedynen Gyfrdwy
Optimally grown in a very humid environment, such as lakesides and ponds, with increased care not to drown it however, this species takes its name from its larger size and distinctive colour. It can reach up to four feet in height and, unlike other ferns, develops a tinge of red during spring, which makes it particularly special.
Soft Shield Fern – Polystichum setiferum –Gwrychredynen Feddal
Akin to most of its peers, this species developed many variations during the Victorian era, when ferns were extremely popular. It is mostly encountered in the western part of Britain and is renowned for being smoother than other species and also for its preference of damp soils, which determines its geographical predominance. It is also sought after due to the silvery scales adorning its fronds in spring.
Hard Shield Fern – Plysichum aculeatum – Gwrychredyn Galed
Compared to other ferns, this variety comes in a solider and pointier shape, with firm and shiny fronds. It can be seen in different topographical areas, from riversides and stream sides to woodlands. It also grows in colder environments such as mountainous regions, if it has an essential level of humidity.
Polypody – Polypodium vulgare – Llawredynen Fagwyr
Resembling a comb in terms of shape, this perennial species thrives in all types of environments across Britain, as it even grows on trees in the wild. Its adaptability and desired aesthetical qualities make it very suitable for home growing. Its medicinal properties have been known since times immemorial, as for centuries it has been used in the treatment of pulmonary and hepatic illnesses. The tea made by boiling is roots has proven beneficial properties for a number of physical ailments, specifically a range of digestive problems.
Maidenhair Spleenwort – Asplenium trichomanes – Duegredynen Gwallt y Forwyn
Unique in appearance and adaptable in terms of auspicious growing conditions, this species thrives in limey soils and grows on patches which are difficult in terms of width and positioning, such as wall sides or small spaces between rocky areas. A perennial variety, it creates a strong effect in any garden as it is bicoloured, its fronds consisting of a dark green stem and much lighter pinnules. Moreover, it doesn’t require as much moisture as other fern species.
Oak Fern – Gymnocarium dryopteris – Llawredynen y Derw
Encountered in the wild bordering water bodies such as rivers and streams, this variety takes its name from the appearance of its fronds when first developing in spring, as they resemble oak leaves for some time. Later into the year however their shape and colour transforms, the latter being a lovely bright green. Although it looks dainty, structurally it is quite hardy and adapts to a range of natural conditions.
OTHER FERNS FOR NATURALISING
Although there is an abundance of fern species in Britain already, exotic varieties have always been sought after, mostly due to their outlandish appearance. Quite a few species introduced from abroad have been observed to develop well when exposed to British climatic conditions and soils, and some have been grown here for hundreds of years. The Victorian obsession with ferns also had its significant contribution in importing other species and naturalising them, and also in the creation of many hybrids.
The King – Dryopteris affinis cristata
Obtained sometime during the Victorian era through intense and passionate breeding experiments, this hybrid species is considered a true gem due to the visual effect its fronds create, through their crested tips. It is a variation of the Gold Scale Fern, a wild species considered aesthetically valuable. It spreads by spores.
Ostrich Fern – Matteuccia struthiopteris
This variety brings a touch of liveliness to any area as its fronds are of an intense bottle green, which is preserved for the duration of spring and summer as well. Also remarkable about it is its easiness of spreading, which is accomplished through stolon, making it ideal for the effortless creation of luxurious patches of vegetation.
Origin: The Himalayas
An eye-catching bicoloured variety, displaying a contrast of light green fronds and black scales, was originally found in the woods of the Himalayas, yet around water bodies as well, predominantly on stream sides. As it is originally from a much harsher climate, it develops excellently in Britain and proves very resistant to weather conditions.
Origin: Japan, China
Originating from woodland areas in China and Japan, this fern suffers a fascinating chromatic transformation, its ferns first developing in pink and bronze, which later evolves into a shiny green, as they mature. As an optimal growing condition, the species needs plenty moisture as well as shade.
Origin: North America
If successfully kept away from excessive heat and provided with an adequate amount of moisture, this variety grows to sizeable dimensions, with remarkably long fronds. The colour of its fronds evolves from a delightful golden green in spring (which has obviously had a bearing on its name) to a light green when maturing.
Sensitive Fern – Onoclea sensibilis
Origin: North America
Suggestively named the Sensitive Fern, its name refers to the fact that its fronds die at the first contact with autumnal frost; during their lifetime however, the plant displays enhanced strength and tolerance to weather conditions and is therefore branded as hardy. Its fronds are a luminous green and liven up any environment. The preferred setting of this plant is swampland; nonetheless, it can successfully be grown in different ones as well if it enjoys plenty moisture.
Japanese Painted Fern – Athyrium niponicum var pictum
Origin: Eastern Asia
This variety is aesthetically flawless, to the point of seeming artificial, hence the name of ‘’painted fern’’. Its fronds are silvery, with a tinge of burgundy in the middle. On average it reaches a height of 18 inches, whereas its fronds can grow up to 20 inches long.