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Larry’s Favorite Native Ferns

I recently visited the garden of Behnkes’ perennials buyer Larry Hurley, shown in this blog story. But there’s another whole group of great shade plants that I admired in Larry’s garden – ferns! – so asked him to share with me and blog readers some of his photos of them, with his own notes on their characteristics and care. Indeed, among all types of native plants, in our region ferns offer an especially large selection of great choices for the garden. Larry says these are all generally available in garden centers and easy to grow.

Christmas Ferns
Christmas Ferns

Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)

  • Evergreen, looks like a Boston Fern; that is, it looks “ferny”
  • Tolerates dry spells.  In the wild it does fine on steep hillsides in the woods during droughty summers
  • Clumper
Ostrich fern

Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)

  • Another lowland plant, can get waist high if moist.
  • Spreader with thick underground stems. Could probably be a nuisance in rich, moist soil
  • Very delicate fronds look like ostrich feathers
  • Does not like drying out; will turn brown in summer droughts, and in late summer turns brown (even when watered) and goes dormant early in my garden. Gorgeous in the spring.
  • I think this is the one that people gather for fiddleheads to eat.  You have to be careful eating ferns, though.  They have a lot of nasty chemicals, even the edible one.
(L) Cinnamon Fern and (R) Lady Fern

Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea)

  • Found in wet lowlands, but adapts to normal garden soils without problems
  • Good for rain gardens, tolerates occasional flooding
  • Called CF because spore leaf resembles a cinnamon stick if you really, really need glasses.  Cinnamon comes from tree bark, not ferns.
  • Height  varies with moisture,  18” to waist high if gets a lot of water
  • Not evergreen
  • Clumper

Lady Fern (Athryium filix-femina)

  • Upright, fine textured
  • Not evergreen
  • Clumper
  • Reddish stems
  • Seems to tolerate drier soils well in my garden
Hayscented Fern

Hayscented Fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula)

  • Ground cover; aggressive spreader in good soils
  • Considered to be one of those few natives, like Black Locust, that is invasive in the right situations—that is, if the deer eat everything else, it spreads like a weed
  • Called hayscented because of the foliage, smells like new mown hay when broken (I guess)
  • Short, brittle stems, easily broken
  • Likes moist woods
  • New York Fern is very similar, but less available for sale
Intermediate Shield Fern

Woodferns, Shield Ferns (Dryopteris spp.)

  • A bunch that all look alike
  • Average soils, dryish to wettish
  • Very ferny, fine textured
  • Some are evergreen but it’s nothing to write home about
  • About knee high
  • Clumper
Royal Fern

Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis)

  • Like Cinnamon Fern, but the spores are borne in clusters at top of fertile leaves, looking like little crowns of gold
  • The least “ferny”, very upright,  resembles a honeylocust leaf
Sensitive Fern

Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis)

  • River edge/ditch plant, takes a lot of sun if it’s kept wet
  • Sensitive because if it gets too dry, or, at the first frost, it’s done for the year
  • Decent yellowish fall color
  • Spreader, can be very aggressive
  • Tolerates poor soils and very happy in rich soils
  • Good for rain gardens
  • Up to about knee high, shorter if drier
Maidenhair Fern

Maidenhair Fern (Apedatum)

  • Very delicate, slower to establish; beautiful
  • Seldom in stock for very long, often looks “scrawny” in the pot and expensive for what you get
  • It ‘s a slow creeper
  • Slugs can be an issue
  • Moist, rich soils
  • Most challenging to grow of those on this list, the rest are pretty easy

Photos and details by Larry Hurley. Posted by Susan Harris.


Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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