Ferns are one of the oldest and largest families of plants in the world. Fern fossils have been discovered that Geologists and Palaeontologists believe grew during the Carboniferous Period 360-286 million years ago!
Long before Dinosaurs ruled the Earth, Ferns did and they dominated the landscape and even the skyline for many millions of years. Today’s modern Ferns have changed very little in all that time and represent a direct botanical link to their ancient heritage.
The Ferns and many of the other botanical species in New Zealand’s native bush represent one of the last remnants of how that ancient primordial world once looked. Today there are over 10,000 species of Fern still flourishing around the world including hundreds of thousands of often unnamed varieties.
New Zealand is the native home of over 200 of the finest. In fact, Botanists consider New Zealand to be one of the best places in the world for observing and growing Ferns due to our humid, mild, wet climate and variety of unspoiled growing environments.
From our towering Tree Ferns (Cyathia) to the small and delicate Maidenhairs (Adiantum) and Hairs Foot (Leptolepia), the lacy Brackens (Hypolepis) and Shield Ferns (Rumohia and Ctenitls) to the versatile Hen and Chicken Fern (Asplenium) and Sword or Ladder Fern (Nephrolepsis) and Hard Ferns (Blechnum) there are few plants that grace New Zealand’s bush and gardens more beautifully than the humble Fern.
But for all their beauty and national significance, many Gardeners find Ferns difficult to grow. The secret is to be found in constant and moderate conditions. In a modern world that so often values extremes and is bombarded by constant change, this often reflects in our lifestyles as well as in our gardens. So it is not difficult to see why Ferns are one of gardening’s more misunderstood plants.
Ferns originated in an ancient world before the beginnings of ‘time’; before the hustle and bustle of modern life. They arrived in the earliest days of creation when primordial forests remained untouched for countless eons. They thrived in cool, damp, humid shaded and sheltered forests where little ever changed or moved about.
Keep this in mind when attempting to grow Ferns either inside or in the garden. Often a trip to a mature forested area where Ferns are naturally growing can prove enlightening. Sit there with them for a while and soak in their natural environment. Feel the cool, humid, still air that surrounds them; examine and touch the forest soil in which they grow; watch the play of dappled sunlight and high, light shade that illuminates their environment. Once the dynamics of this unique forested environment are understood, then it will be much easier to recreate something similar at home or in the garden.
Try to provide Ferns with those constant conditions: moderate temperatures that never are particularly cold nor hot and never freezing; relatively high humidity that continually bathes them in moist air; a continuous and very even supply of moisture that keeps them constantly moist, but not wet, and never drying out; shelter from all winds, both chilling or dry and hot; and bright to moderate light with possibly some dappled, filtered or ‘soft’ morning sunlight.
There are always a few exceptions to these rules. Some Ferns like the Resurrection Fern
(Pleopeltis polypoloides, Polypodium polypodioides and several other species) can literally dry out into a small dry ball of straw without ill effect. Then soon after being soaked with water, they spring back into life. Many Ferns can tolerate considerably more direct sunlight, especially when this is introduced gradually or when the Ferns are grown outdoors in an otherwise suitable microclimate. Asplenium bulbiferum and many other Asplenium varieties, Bracken Fern, Cyathea and Dicksonia Tree Ferns, some Leather ferns, Nephrolepsis Ferns, Shield Ferns and related species can often thrive in nearly full sunlight and much more open exposed environments that even dry out to some degree, especially when they are growing in the ground and surrounded by humid air. But most Ferns need constant moisture both in the ground and through rainfall or humid air.
Soil should be light and peaty with the ability to hold water but with the excess draining through. They ideally grow in forest leaf litter soils which are composed of naturally composted branches, leaves, stems and sticks and occasional animal and/or bird droppings. This creates a fluffy, constantly moist and spongy soil medium where they can spread their rhizomous and sometimes semi-epiphytic roots.
Avoid heavy clay or loamy soils that might become water logged or bake hard when dry. Ferns prefer porous soils. Ferns can tolerate a wide range of soil pH but usually prefer those that are somewhat acid around 5.5-6.5 but can tolerate a range from pH 4.0-7.0
Dappled sunlight; bright high shade and morning sunlight positions are usually the preferred light for Ferns. Some like Bracken, Ladder and Sword Ferns, Shield Fern, Tree Ferns can tolerate full sun without too much scorching, provided they stay moist, while others like delicate Maidenhair demand bright shade. Often when Ferns are grown in bright sunlight, their fronds become chartreuse or yellow significantly. If weather and sunlight become too extreme, their delicate fronds will burn or scorch. Overall Ferns grown in very bright light can be more robust and stocky but are much more likely to be course and somewhat stunted which can detract from their otherwise graceful beauty.
Ferns produce spores instead of flowers or seeds. The spore case or sporangia splits open from beneath the leaf releasing the ‘seed’ spores to the ground. If the soil they fall upon is moist and warm soon each spore will grow to create a green, small heart-shaped scale called a prothallus. These prothalli contain the male and female sex organs that combine within the prothallus to create a new Fern. From this spring the first emerging Fern leafs that will grow the mature Fern plant.
Once established the Fern can reproduce itself from division of its creeping rhizomous rootstock or small offset crowns or from the spores on the leaves. Some Ferns like Asplenium produce small baby Fern bulbils along the margins of mature leaves. When successfully planted, these quickly strike to produce new plants.
To grow a Fern from spores simply partially fill a shallow pan, pot or terrarium arrangement with a mix of sand and peat. Place a mature Fern leaf with mature spores (they will appear like brown fuzzy spots on the backside of each leaf) topside up on the sand. Maintain a bright, humid, moist and warm environment. This can be accomplished by placing the pan or pot within a plastic bag drawn up around it to create a small terrarium. Or the pan or pot could be covered with a bell jar or sheet of glass. The tiny spores will hatch in a few weeks to a few months into green mossy prothalli. Once these prothalli produce small true fern leaves, each can be pricked out into a separate container or a nursery flat for growing-on. Fern spores are often produced in the warmer Spring and Summer months and should be started immediately as the spores are often fragile and their lifespan sometimes short.
Depending on climate and Fern variety, Early to Mid Spring is the best time to move or divide established Ferns just before new growth begins. Ferns are often more difficult to transplant from one ground site to another once active growth begins, but can still be easily transplanted from established containers. For best results, remove most of the older leaves when shifting. This will reduce excessive water evaporating through the Fern leaves and will give the crown or trunk a better start. Replant the Fern crown at the same depth as it was growing before. Avoid deeper planting that might bury the crown and result in rotting.
While Ferns may seem somewhat temperamental as to their requirements, they are remarkably hardy and resilient plants. That is why they have survived through so many millions of years of geological evolution and time. Once a suitable microclimate is found they will thrive both indoors and outside providing an abundance of beautiful graceful fronds that will enhance almost any indoor or garden setting.
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