Ferns add beauty and texture to native habitats, home gardens

Published 11:14 pm Friday, July 6, 2012

Ferns are survivors. According to the American Fern Society, fossils have been found that tell us they were around 300-360 million years ago. Some of the early ferns are now extinct but there are 12,000 modern ferns from the Cretaceous Period or roughly 145 million years ago when dinosaurs populated the planet.

Ferns can be found in a variety of locations around Mississippi from sunny to shady sites, from wet to dry soils and from acid to alkaline pH areas. The big news is that Mississippians now have a wonderful online resource to help them identify native and naturalized ferns found in Mississippi.

The web site mississippiferns.com lists species native or common to Mississippi and contains over 500 pictures to help with identification. Visitors can go to the site and define certain traits about a fern they see and the site will assist in the identification.

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Questions which might need to be answered before the identification can be made include: where a fern is growing; how its fronds are divided; the shape of the fronds and how the plant is growing in the soil.

There is also a way to email the site developed by Heather Sullivan with the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science and Alan Holditch to ask questions.

An interactive glossary explains the general structure of ferns to assist in identification. Areas include the sporangia or spores, a way that ferns reproduce since they don’t produce flowers or seedpods; leaf structures or fronds; fiddleheads, which is the term used for the new fronds as they first emerge from the soil; roots and the stems, many of which grow horizontally underground to expand their clump size.

Another feature of the site is a species listing with pictures of the clumps in their natural setting, close-ups of fertile fronds containing spores, fiddleheads and mature plants. This section also includes the botanical and common names, habitat and a map of the counties where these ferns normally occur. All info is user-friendly and allows identification to be narrowed to a specific species.

Ferns are surprisingly easy to establish and maintain in a home landscape according to Bob Brzuszek, Assistant Extension Professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture at Mississippi State University and a member of the Mississippi Native Plant Society.

One of their few requirements is to be planted in a shaded area where they can be protected from the hot afternoon sun. Most prefer loose well-drained organic soil but some natives can tolerate poor or even wet soil types. Brzuszek recommends loosening the top 4 inches of soil where they are to be planted before working in compost or peat moss, trying not to disturb tree roots but planting around them.

A soaker hose will help to keep the area moist and a thick layer of leaf mulch will help the planting area retain moisture. Once established, ferns are easy to grow and require little extra water or fertilizer except in periods of extreme drought.

Brzuszek’s recommendations for good landscape ferns include the following natives: sensitive fern, netted chain fern, Christmas fern, Mariana maiden fern, royal fern, Southern beech fern, lady fern, Southern maidenhair, ebony spleenwort, holly fern, wood fern and cinnamon fern. All are highlighted on the mississippifern.com site. Asian fern, autumn fern and vegetable fern are also recommended.

Ferns provide so many shades of green in a landscape as well as fine textures. Their variety of sizes, shapes and growth habits make them quite effective when combined with bolder coarser textured shade plants.

Plants which are particularly well-suited to combination planting with ferns according to Brzuszek are cast iron plant, bear’s breech, dwarf palmetto, gingers, split-leaf philodendron, umbrella plant and aridisa. Variegated vinca, ajuga, variegated Algerian ivy, hostas and other perennials can provide color accents with the predominately green ferns. He warns that some of the ferns spread aggressively by rhizomes such as the sword fern and care should be taken when choosing plants to combine with this species.

If you happen to get to the Natural Museum of Science this summer to see the dinosaur exhibit, check out the Fern Trail they are developing and the native ferns included in the Native Plant Garden. Boy scouts are working on building a bridge and walkway to the area as their Eagle Scout project which will make it easier to access, and garden clubs throughout the state have donated funds to purchase plants for both areas.