Neil Sperry

Fancy ferns are tougher than you’d think

Holly fern in bed
Holly fern in bed

Ferns never cease to amaze me. Even after that really cold weather in January my two evergreen types are still growing strong and my one type that dies to the ground is coming back for probably its 30th year in its big planting in our gardens. Inspired as I frequently am by their performance, I decided to say a few words on their behalf.

Southern wood fern (Dryopteris ludoviciana) is where I got my beginning. It’s the most common landscaping fern here in North Texas because it adapts to our soils and our climate and never seems to complain as long as it’s planted in a shady, moist setting. It’s native across all of the South, which would help explain its suitability to the warm southern climate.

Years ago, I found a great sale at a nursery that had overbought on wood ferns that spring. I planted 100 of them from 1-gallon pots into a bed where English ivy had become a problem due to an ugly fungal leaf spot. I sprayed the disease one time, and when it came back, I decided it was time to try something else. And that’s when southern wood ferns entered my life.

Those plants are still there to this day. I amended their soil when I planted them, but that was so long ago that I’m sure the organic matter has all long since rotted away. They’re growing in the North Texas black gumbo clay, and judging from how nice they looked 10 minutes ago when I walked past them, they’re happy as they can be. All they get over the course of a growing season is all-nitrogen lawn food applied when we feed everything else (April, June and September) and a weekly deep soaking when the soil begins to dry. I’ve never seen an insect or disease bother them. They simply grow to 16 to 24 inches tall and look beautiful.

Fern specialists collect many selections of southern wood ferns, and you’ll see them offered in really well-stocked nurseries and online. Any of them should do very well in your plantings.

I’ve loved holly ferns since I was a young horticulturist in high school. It came into the market in College Station where I grew up, and I soon had them in several corners of our landscape. They did quite well for me there, growing to 24 to 30 inches tall and 36 inches wide, but I’ve had mixed results here in North Texas. They’re not as winter-hardy as we would like, and it’s not uncommon to see browned leaves in the spring. For that reason, I keep a piece of frost cloth handy, and I cover them anytime temperatures are expected to drop to the low 20s or colder. It also helps that I have mine planted in a moist, shady spot that’s protected from the cold north winds.

I decided to plant a new bed of autumn ferns, the variety ‘Brilliance,’ two years ago. I had seen it in a couple of public gardens, and I wanted some of that beauty in our landscape at home. I found it in a local retail nursery, and I bought all that they had. It’s evergreen, with dark, glossy green fronds that are pretty enough to be used in floral corsages. It’s the smallest of the three ferns I’m describing, growing to 12 to 16 inches tall and wide. Even though my plants were unprotected in this January’s cold, they came through just fine.

If you visit local nurseries, botanic gardens and other fine landscapes you’ll find several other less common types of ferns doing quite well. Maidenhair ferns look like they’d be the most delicate plants in the world, but they’ll surprise you with their durability. Hiking toward a tiny waterfall out in the arid Big Bend National Park 12 years ago, we came upon a maidenhair fern growing alongside and beneath a large agave century plant. The spray from the waterfall kept the fern going, and the shade of the big agave leaves protected it from the scalding West Texas sun.

And there are fern wannabes. Asparagus fern in its several types look for all the world like true ferns, but they’re actually sisters to the popular vegetable. The most common among them is springeri fern, often used as filler in large garden baskets and urns. Farther south in Texas it’s trimmed and used as a perennial bed edging or sprawling groundcover. And Meyer’s fern, more commonly known as foxtail fern is a popular patio container plant. It sends out its stems that resemble sprays from a fountain. Neither of these is winter-hardy in North Texas.

And finally, only because it probably doesn’t rise up to a column all on its own, I have a plant that’s the perfect companion to ferns. Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’ and others) is also native to eastern North America. Like ferns, it grows in moist, shady conditions. Its brightly variegated leaves are held all season long, and new spring growth is marked by cheerful little hanging blossoms.

Solomon’s seal has received a lot of attention in the past several years in the national press because it was named perennial plant of the year by the Perennial Plant Association in 2013. And that makes it hard to find, because we plant hoarders tend to buy the great plants as soon as we see them. It will only be in finer nurseries that carry wide assortments of perennials. If you don’t see it, ask for it. Perhaps they can order it in for you. You can also find it online.

Neil Sperry hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sundays on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: