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Ferns,Prehistoric Survivors

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I am fascinated by the thought that ferns have been around for over 3 million years. Today there are over 12,000 varieties worldwide. Ferns range from less than an inch long (mosquito fern) to 12 feet high (tree fern). Ferns grow in all parts of the world, from deserts to fields or near the timberline in high mountains. Most grow in the wet tropics but for the gardener they are a huge asset as they look natural in the woodland garden, grow in rock gardens, can be massed as groundcover or along water as accent plants and are lovely alone or in container plantings. Ferns require no staking, are mostly pest and disease free and are generally unappealing to deer!! Ferns fascinate the eye with beauty and form. I say this because John Mickel, in his the book, Ferns for American Gardens, states that “The bright colours of flowers are admired by the least intellectual, but the beauty and form and textures of ferns requires a higher degree of mental perception.” Sounds like me, ok?

Ferns dominated the vegetation scene in the Carboniferous Period, known as the age of ferns. As time went on and dinosaurs ruled, seed bearing plants came into dominance. These plants had evolved from ferns that developed seed. But other ferns came to manufacture miniature sacs or capsules containing microscopic particles called spores. Being small as dust, they can travel far and are resistant to dryness and ultraviolet light. They have been trapped at the altitude airplanes fly.

Millions and billions of spores are released during a fern´s life but only a few will ever land in a spot suitable for growth. If adequate moisture and light are available, the spore, as a single cell with divide until soon there are orderly arrangements of cells forming a little green heart shaped plant, called a gametophyte that is an independent plant capable of survival with its own root system. Male and female organs grow next, enabling the spermatozoids formed from the male organs to swim via even a drop of water to where fertilization occurs in the egg. This will develop into the plant we know as a fern.

Native plant enthusiast Carolee James loves the Woodwardia or golden chain fern. These ferns are attractive as focal points and, as with all ferns, are best grown in their natural conditions, namely in rich humus soil and kept constantly moist. Carolee grows ferns on the north side of her house where they will get shade most of the day. She even shades the ferns in the summer heat with an umbrella if they are not protected by other natural means in the yard. Carolee says Woodwardia are very beautiful and suitable for our soils although as with all ferns, they need summer shade and water. She also grows California maidenhair fern, Adiantum jordanii and five finger fern or American maidenhair, Adiantum pedatum.

Rock garden founder Barbara Henrietta grows Birds-foot Cliff-brake, Pellaea mucronata. She says it thrives in part shade in stony and well drained soil. She gives it a small summer watering and says it is native to the southern part of Tuolumne County. Another fern she grows is bracken fern, Pteridium aquilinum. It doesn´t spread, has a leathery leaf and is 1-2 ft. tall and about as wide.

Under trees at the Cedar Ridge level, Patti Henderson grows autumn or western sword ferns, Korean rock fern, Alaskan fern and lady fern. Patti says the lady fern dies back but the others are green all year. Lady fern is one of the easiest to grow as it spreads slowly under favorable conditions. Contrary to most ferns, the lady fern keeps unfurling new growth as the summer progresses unlike the others who show most of their new growth in the spring. The autumn ferns have done the best for her but the western are new and should do well as they mature as they are natives.

Val Myrick, of Columbia Nursery, loves Japanese painted ferns. They are deciduous but make up for it with their wonderful green, silver and deep fuschia growth. Val says that because of their unique colors, she enjoys complimenting them with begonias, impatiens, the red leaves of oxalis and variegated ajuga, false nettle and bleeding heart. Sounds like if you love a fern, you will have many excuses to buy more plants to compliment them. Well, that´s if you need an excuse. Take a new look at ferns and see how you too will appreciate their form and beauty. See you in the garden.

Julie thanks her master gardener friends for letting her mention their names. Julie´s favorite fern is the maidenhair.