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Ferns | Magical shade loving ancients

Ferns | Magical shade loving ancients


There is something truly magical about the thought that the plant for this week’s column was around when the dinosaurs were. In fact, the oldest fern fossil records of ferns date back to around 360 million years ago making the fern plant even older than the dinosaurs. It is no wonder so that ferns have an ancient and mythical feel to them. Unfurling slowly like a pre-historic snail, these plants are a wonderful addition to the shade garden and many varieties are actually native to our country. The common name fern is derived from the Anglo-saxon ‘fearn’ which means feather and it is easy to see why when you study the shape of the lovely, graceful feathered fronds.

Walking in our native woodlands at this time of the year one may notice the limited palette of colour and foliage. Nature is just re-awakening and most trees are still bare having cast their autumns leaves to cover the ground in a fertile brown mulch. Luckily, ferns love this brown, leafy mulch and thrive in the shady conditions of our native woodland with many varieties staying green throughout the colder months.

One such wonder is the evergreen Polystichum aculeatum-the hard shield fern which is native to Ireland and the UK. This beautiful fern has stiff arching fonds which have brown scales on the underside. They are very frequent in the North West and North of Ireland and are happiest in wooded valleys, shaded stream-sides and steep, acid rich soils. Anyone that enjoys walks out in nature will will certainly recognise these as growing in many natural wooded locations where the rich lime green of the leaves create areas of texture and light. The soft shield fern -Polystichum setiferum -on the other hand, has beautiful lacy fronds  which only emerge in Spring, right after bulbs die down, making them a wonderful companion plant for Spring bulbs in a shaded spot.

Another great example of a native beauty is the more slender Polypodium vulgare– the common Polypody. You may have seen this tough little fern growing out of tiny crevices in rocks and even on trees as an epiphyte, and it spreads easily to cover ground making it a handy plant to create interest on well-drained and gritty banks. Unlike the hard shield fern this plant prefers gritty, sandy soils and rarely tolerates lime soil.

Planting ferns in your garden can create a very successful backbone to your planting schemes. Planted en-masse they can create an incredibly beautiful structural area of texture, giving great movement in a breeze. Interspersed with other shade loving woodland plants they can form a very interesting tapestry of colour and green, giving flowering shade plants like bluebells and Epimedium great contrast. They will grow best in a lightly shaded spot but can do well in sunny spots too as long as they are well watered. They are also a lovely plant to use for underplanting of small shrubs and roses where they give much needed structure in the dormant months.

From a design point of view ferns are a valuable plant to create a feel of tropics here in Ireland and specimens such as the Tree fern- Disckonia antartica – can be planted to create your very own ancient jungle.

Fun Fact

An interesting fact is when used in flower arrangements ferns have been said to have protective properties. In some countries hanging the ferns in the house is said to bring health, luck and protection.

3 great ferns from the garden centre: 

There are many ferns readily available to buy from garden centres which do very well in our gardens. Here are some structural beauties:

1.Asplenium scolopendrium – Harts Tongue Fern

The leathery green arching fronds of this fern make it a wonderful addition to a shady corner, bringing light and texture to a shady spot. It is also evergreen so will ensure that the garden has some rich green throughout the Winter months. It likes humus rich but well-drained soil.

2. Polystichum polyplepharum- The Japanese tassel fern

Another wonderful evergreen species, this time a Japanese variety whose fronds emerge in light, lime green and mature to darker green as they grow. The bonus in these ferns is that they have yellow bristles which are notable on emerging croziers (the young curled fronds). This fern likes moist but well-drained soil.

3. Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’-Autumn fern

Here is a more unusually coloured variety. This fern unfurls in Spring to reveal pink croziers that unfurl to copper as they emerge fully. Maturing over time the fully opened fronds become deep green. This pant likes moist, rich and well-drained, acidic soils and is happiest in full to partial shade.

A primeval Jungle on our doorstep- Discover the tropics in Kells Bay

When it comes to seeing ferns in spectacular settings there is no place more special than Kells Bay on the ring of Kerry. Known locally as the ‘Jewel on the Ring,’ the Kells Bay Gardens are a magical example of drama and a true plant haven. Set amid 17 hectares which boast stunning views of Dingle bay, these gardens contain a large collection of rare sub-tropical plants. One of the highlights of these gardens is the The Primeval Forest, the undoubted centrepiece of Kells Bay Gardens, which has an extensive collection of tree ferns.  Thanks to a late Victorian trend in naturalistic design these gardens are very naturalistic in character and Kells bay gardens are a wonderful example of how native and exotic species can work together harmoniously on this most Southern tip of Ireland.

Reminiscent of new Zealand or Costa Rican jungles, the garden has ideal conditions for ferns such as the tree fern -the Dicksonia antartica- which absolutely thrive in the ideal mild and moist conditions of these gardens. There are over 600 specimens of these tree ferns in this garden and all are over a century old. In fact, many of the ferns in the garden were planted in the mid-19th century after being brought over from Australia and they have now adapted to and colonised their new home so completely that Antipodean visitors feel perfectly at home. Other ferns which are worth noting in these gardens are Dicksonia fibrosa, Blechnum discolor, Blechnum fluviatile, Blechnum nudum, Blechnum tabulare, Polystichum vestitum, the epiphytic fern Microsorum diversifolium, Lophosoria quadripiannata amongst others. However the most impressive of the ferns in the Primeval Forest has to be the stand of Blechnum magellanicum a wonderful Chilean species which has juvenile red fronds when they emerge in Spring.

Kells Bay Gardens are open daily to the public.

Opening times are daylight hours from 09:00 to 19:00 daily all year round, in summer months the gardens are open until 21:00 

November / December opening times, 9:00 am to 4:30 pm

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