In shady places, and in containers on verandahs or indoors, ferns create delicate patterns of green and mix well with other shade‑loving plants.
Ferns are among the most ancient plants on earth, first appearing over 400 million years ago. They reproduce by means of minute spores, which usually develop on the undersides of the fronds. Some species spread widely by means of rhizomes, underground or surface‑running stems that produce roots. Other ferns grow small plantlets, called bulbils, along their fronds, which take root in the ground when the fronds droop
Elk horns — one of the best‑known epiphytic ferns — produce many offsets on the outer edges of their leaves. These increase in size until they eventually fall to the ground to grow as separate plants
There are at least 10 000 species of ferns growing throughout the world, from Greenland in the north to parts of Antarctica in the south. Ferns will grow in a variety of habitats ranging from open fields to deserts, but thrive in shaded, damp forest, being at their most luxuriant in tropical rain forest
They range in size from minute plants similar to mosses, no more than a few millimetres in height, to huge palm‑like tree ferns 15m high
Ferns occur either as epiphytes — growing on other plants — or as terrestrials, growing in the ground or in rock fissures
Some terrestrial ferns are climbers, twining around other plants or climbing on long stems to the tops of tall trees. Some varieties of ferns even float in ponds
There are more than 250 species of ferns indigenous to South Africa, mostly found in the moister parts of the country — the south‑western, southern and eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga. There are, however, a few species adapted to living in the drier regions — the Little and the Great Karoo, and Namaqualand.
The popularity of ferns for garden and indoor decoration dates back several centuries, to the days when European ships travelled widely in search of trade, bringing back among their many other discoveries strange and exotic ferns. The descendants of some of these ferns can still be seen growing in such places as the Botanical Gardens in Florence, and Kew Gardens on the outskirts of London.
The interest in these foreign ferns stimulated a similar interest by gardeners in the ferns of the cooler climates nearer home, particularly in England. In Victorian and Edwardian England the collection of unusual ferns became a major gardening craze, and many homes had fern houses or conservatories. This enthusiasm for ferns in time spread to other parts of the world.
With the advent of more efficient methods of home heating, which tended to dry out the atmosphere, ferns no longer thrived indoors and their popularity as indoor plants declined. Nowadays, however, more is known about their environmental needs and ferns are again being used extensively for indoor decoration, as well as outdoor landscaping.
Most ferns will grow prolifically, both indoors and out, if the right environment is available — or if it can be created. There are a few, however, that are extremely difficult to grow, and their cultivation should be attempted only by the most dedicated and experienced gardener.
Given a damp, shaded position, ferns in the garden generally need little attention — some can remain undisturbed for up to 20 years. The soil simply needs to be top-dressed once a year with compost or leaf mould. It should also be weeded from time to time. Dead and dying fronds should be cut off once a year in order to encourage new growth.
FOR SOUTH AFRICAN GARDENERS
Here are a few of the more popular cultivated species of native ferns.
Toothed Fern (Thelypteris dentata)
An attractive fern with long narrowish fronds with toothed edges, it spreads by means of a short creeping rhizome. The Toothed fern is fairly fast growing and can be planted in dappled shade under large trees, next to a water feature, or in a container on a shady patio. It requires rich, fertile, well-drained soil that contains plenty of compost. Apply a thick layer of mulch and water well, keeping the soil moist throughout the year. The fronds can be cut back whenever the fern starts looking untidy — it soon sprouts a new set. The Toothed ferns natural distribution is along mountain streams and in the shade of riverine forest in the wetter, warmer areas of South Africa.
Knysna Fern (Rumohra adiantiformis)
The glossy light green leathery fronds of the Knysna Fern are coarsely toothed and roughly triangular in shape. The attractive foliage is often used in flower arrangements and the plant is often cultivated for this purpose. This striking fern is ideal for that shady spot in the water garden, near a plant or stream. Plant the Knysna Fern in dappled shade under a large tree or in a container on the patio. Like the Toothed Fern it prefers rich, fertile, well-drained soil that contains plenty of compost. Water well, keeping the soil moist throughout the year. The Knysna Fern’s natural distribution is a forest margins, forest floors and sometimes rocky hillsides from south-western Cape through eastern southern Africa.
Banded Fern (Pteris cittata)
One of my favourites, his fast growing, attractive fern has fairly broad, leathery fronds up to a metre in length. Under suitable conditions this fern ‘seeds’ itself fairly frequently in gardens. The babies make great gifts for friends. Plant the Banded Fern in light shade or in a container on the patio. It prefers partial or light shade rather than deep shade and always be placed where the sun can reach it for a short while each day. Position it next to a group of large rocks next to a pool or stream in the water garden and it will look perfect. The soil must be fertile, light and contain plenty of compost. Water it every day, especially in hot, dry weather. The Banded Fern’s natural distribution is in warmer, drier areas, but always near water where its roots can reach moisture. Found from the Eastern Cape northwards to tropical Africa.
Foxtail Fern (Asparagus densiflorus ‘Meyersii”)
The Foxtail Fern gets its name from its delightful foliage which resembles foxtails. Tiny white flowers are followed by small shiny red berries which birds love. Weavers, Cape white-eyes, thrushes, buibuls, tinkers and robins could be attracted. Asparagus species are used by traditional healers to treat conditions such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, malaria, urinary tract infections, dehydration and haemorrhoids and have reportedly also been used as a sedative. The attractive, soft‑looking and erect ‘fronds’ make this an excellent choice of plant for a water garden or for a large container on a patio or outdoors. It grows moderately fast, seems to prefer more sun than shade, and is a lovely foliage plant. Use it in groups under trees, or group three plants in a large and decorative container at the front door. Plant the Foxtail Fern in good soil containing plenty of compost, and water regularly, although once established it is fairly drought resistant. Plants cut back by frost will recover rapidly in spring. The Foxtail Fern’s natural distribution is open woodland.
Many ferns are protected and may not be collected from the wild, transported, or sold, without a permit. Offenders face severe fines. Ask your local nursery to obtain cultivated plants for you.
For photos and cultivation information on hundreds of Southern African indigenous plants, you can also visit www.PlantZAfrica.com .