PHOTO BY MARIA SOBCZAK/VICTORIA COUNTY MASTER GARDENER
The foxtail fern if related to the asparagus fern with foliage that resembles fox tails.  It also tolerates sun to partial shade and can be found growing at Victoria Educational Gardens.
Magical Ferns
Plants offer a variety of textures, colors, as well as
fine foliage


March 12, 2009

by Maria Sobczak, Victoria County Master Gardener
edited by Charla Borchers Leon, Victoria County Master Gardener
PHOTO BY MARIA SOBCZAK, VICTORIA COUNTY MASTER GARDENER
The asparagus fern (Asparagus densiflorus) is technically not a fern because it reproduces by seed instead of spores.  The asparagus fern can be found growing along a wall walkway of the Officer's Club building at the Victoria Educational Gardens
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Is that a fern?  It’s such a fabulous plant.

Most of the time, you can tell what it is, but sometimes you just can’t.

Only the other day, I learned that there is a plant called giant salvinia, a member of the floating fern family, growing in Coleto Creek.  It looks more like small lobed leaves of a water lily chained together in a line rather than a type of fern.  You can view it online here: 
http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=SALVI2

Be careful with that one.  It looks lovely, but is very invasive and definitely not recommended for use in the water areas in Texas or any of the other southern states.

The more research I did on ferns, the more fascinating they became.  Ferns have a wide geographical distribution.  Their 10,000 different species and varieties are found almost throughout the whole world.  From those growing sparsely in the Arctic to varieties burgeoning in the tropics, these flowerless plants prefer island and coastal areas to those inland.

IN GARDEN AND HOME SETTINGS


Ferns offer a variety of textures and colors, as well as fine foliage for indoor arrangements.  They thrive as ground covers and accent plants, in rock gardens and woodland shade, on the banks of streams or the edges of water gardens, some even in boggy sites.  Many are so easy to grow that they flourish in such unlikely places as beneath decks, and much to many a gardener’s dismay, under and throughout the inside areas of neighboring shrubs.

Dr. William Welch, a veteran horticulturist and landscape specialist with Texas A&M University, mentions in his book “
Perennial Garden Color,” that ferns are perennials grown for their handsome foliage, some being evergreen, while others will die back in the winter.  One that seems to be more unusual is the Japanese climbing fern (Lygodium japonicum), commonly found climbing on threes and shrubs.  It can tolerate direct sun and periods of dry weather without serious damage.  He also notes that the asparagus fern, though commonly called a fern, is not a true fern, since it reproduces by seed instead of spores.

Whole books have been written on just the varieties of staghorn ferns (Platycerium spp.)  They need no soil but will grow on the bark of trees in nature.  Water from rain and nutrients, such as bird droppings or dead insects are funneled to the root system by specially designed leaves.  The base of the fern is like a head of cabbage and has specialized leaves (called sterile leaves), which protect the root system.

PREPARATION OF THE SOIL


Ferns, in general, are woodland plants and in nature grow in a spngy carpet of rotted leaf humus that has accumulated through the years.  So, if you are planning to add some to your landscape, careful preparation of the soil is essential.  While most flourish in mildly acid soil with generous amounts of organic matter, some can tolerate an alkaline condition.  Begin by spreading three inches of peat moss or compost over the planting area chosen, plus a sprinkling of bone meal.  Mix the materials into the soil.  The key is moisture and shade.  Different varieties will be happy in different environs, and that will be the test to see if you have matched them up.

When potting a fern, use soil that is light, fibrous, spngy and capable of retaining moisture without becoming soggy or solid.  Good materials are a combination of clean fibrous loam, peat moss, leaf mold, coarse sand and granulated charcoat or brick rubble in roughly equal proportions.  Always plant loosely, and include material in the bottom of the pot that will provide good drainage.

CHOICE OF LOCATION


Proper location is also important.  While there are a few ferns that will tolerate a certain amount of direct sun, there are non which require it.  This makes areas that might be on the north side of a building or shaded by trees, an ideal spot for these interesting and gracefully shaped plants.  So despite their delicate appearance, ferns are dependable, long-lived additions to moist, shaded parts of the garden.  The foliage of ferns, beautiful on its own, also makes a wonderful complement to the flowers and leaves of other plants.

VARIETIES FOR TEXAS LANDSCAPES


In his book, “
Texas Garden Almanac,” Doug Welsh, professor and extension horticulturist at Texas A&M University, suggests that the following varieties work especially well for Texas landscapes.  Asparagus fern (Asparagus densiflorus “Sprengeri”), with its dense fine-textured, light green foliage, can tolerate sun to partial shade.  Holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum) is a bold-textured fern that is ideal for deep shade, but can grow in partial shade and is considered a deer-resistant landscape plant;  river or wood fern (Thelypteris kunthii) is designated as a Texas native plant having fine-textured foliage that grows well in partial shade to full shade conditions.

A fact that might not be well known is that the small spots seen on the bottom of most fern leaves are called sori.  If you look at these spots with a magnifier, you will see that each is really a cluster of tiny spore cases called sporangia.  When the spore cases burst open, the spores are sprayed into the air like a powder.

Ancient people knew about spore dust and thought it had magic qualities.  They believed it would make them invulnerable to their enemies and increase their powers as great lovers, among other benefits.

They ate it, drank it and poured it over themselves. 

If properly placed and cared for in your landscape, ferns can be as fabulous and magical today as they were in ancient times.
PHOTOS BY MARIA SOBCZAK, VICTORIA COUNTY MASTER GARDENER
The artillery fern is technically not a fern.  It is low-growing and has very fine foliage, and is very easy to grow.
The macho fern is very prolific and one of the easiest to grow.  It thrives in pots, as a huge hanging basket, or can be successfully planted in the ground.  This variety can be seen in a huge pot on the west porch of the Officer's Club building at VEG.

SEASONAL GROWING TIPS
SPRING
*After frost, plant ferns in the shade under trees or shrubs.
*Once actively growing, fertilize with fish emulsion or slow release fertilizers.
*Repeat about every two months during the growing season.

SUMMER
*Keep the soil around ferns moist, but not soggy.
*Water extra to prevent heat scorch - brown edges on the fronds.

FALL
*Renew mulch around ferns using a light material such as shredded leaves.
*To protect new growing tips, leave old fronds on the plants during the winter.
*When new growth begins in the spring, the old fronds can then be removed.
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or vcmga@vicad.com, or comment on this column at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.