The Mixed Fern Border

The Mixed Fern Border

To the real fern enthusiast the idea of mixing his ferns with other plants might seem a waste of planting space and it is very true that a hardy fern border pure and simple, with its infinite variations of foliage skilfully contrasted, its infinite gradations and hues of green, can be a most attractive feature in the garden, the general effect cool and restful, undisturbed by the intrusion of vivid colour. On the other hand, one must be broad minded and admit the possibility that there are other points of view.

There are many plants which associate and contrast well with ferns, plants with bold foliage, and in addition the added attraction of coloured flowers; plants which appreciate cool conditions and some shade and remain in good shape through much of the year.

Naturally one would avoid plants known for their preference for dry conditions, such as the many silvery-leaved plants, or those which require maximum sunshine for their wellbeing; such are kniphofias and yuccas.

As a general guide to a plant’s preferences, those with broad foliage, of rather thin substance, usually are shade loving-species, their leaves being adapted to absorb the amount of subdued light necessary for efficient manufacture of food.

Cryptogramma crispa - The Parsley Fern The various species of acanthus are plants of great interest and architectural value in the herbaceous border, and they are quite at home in light shade. Acanthus mollis and its variety Acanthus mollis latifolius have handsome, deeply lobed foliage, make large bushy plants, and contrast well with the various varieties of Dryopteris filix-mas and D. borreri and other Dryopteris. Acanthus spinossisimus runs about underground, building up masses of very decorative spiny foliage, and the statuesque flower spikes always attract interest. This species likes rather lighter shade than its relations, but is well worth planting in the fern border, especially in the sunnier warmer counties.

In groups near the front of the fern border the massive and handsome foliage of the bergenias or megaseas, relations of the saxifrages, can be used with great effect, and it is evergreen.

There is a range of cultivars with effective pale rose to deep purple flowers in dense heads in early summer. They thrive in the specially prepared fern border, but are of easy cultivation in most soils. Sometimes their leaves adopt reddish autumn colour.

Another useful ground cover, though very invasive, is the lily of the valley, Convallaria majalis, especially in the giant form, ‘Fortin’s Giant’; the intense sweetness of the flowers more than makes up for any trouble experienced in keeping the plant within bounds. There is a form with variegated leaves, and also one with pink flowers, rather small and dim. Perhaps someone will cross this with ‘Fortin’s Giant’ and get a good-sized pink

The smaller May lily, Maianthemum bifolium, is a cheerful small carpeting plant, with heart-shaped leaves and small spikes of white flowers in early summer, and this plant will run about freely in most soils. Both the glaucous foliage of Convallaria and the bright green May lily leaves look very well amongst the ferns.

Another delightful carpeter, perhaps an oddity to some tastes, is that miniature relation of our native ‘lords and ladies’, Arisarum proboiscideum. This small arum makes mats of deep green, polished, arrowhead foliage a few inches high, and flowers resembling mice slipping into hiding, waving their tails behind them.

There are other relations of the arums which will thrive and look well amongst the ferns, such as ‘Jack in the Pulpit’, Arisaema triphylla, so called because the spadix sticks up in the purple striped hooded spathe: from America, and quite hardy. The rather rare and very beautiful Arisaema candida has a pure white spathe delicately veined with green. Another avoid, the ‘Dragon’ Arum dracunculus, is rather stately and striking, the purple-spotted stems rising up to two feet, with pedate foliage and a purplish-brown spathe. This species is not invasive and is a good companion to the ferns.

The ‘Dutchman’s Britches’ or ‘Bleeding Heart’, Dicentra spectabilis, is a splendid plant for the shady border; the slightly glaucous foliage is itself ferny, and looks well among the larger ferns, especially when contrasted with the Hartstongue, in its larger varieties. The sprays of heart-shaped flowers dangling from arching stems are lovely and graceful. It grows up to two feet. The smaller dicentras too are excellent plants for the shade, in the foreground, and may be had in pink and white varieties.

Blechnum tabulare, or Lomaria magellanica as it used to be named, is a very handsome semi-evergreen fern which looks extremely effective with he dicentras; its arching deep green fronds are some eighteen to twenty-our inches high, and it creeps slowly, by underground runners. The dicentras are, of course, herbaceous, dying down every autumn.

American Sensitive Fern, Onoclea sensibilis, so called because its fronds wither at the first frost, is another highly suitable species for similar contrasts; it has very handsome deeply lobed fronds up to eighteen inches or more. The fertile fronds in America have the name of `beadsticks’ on account of the bunches of purple-tinted sporangia, arranged on foot-high fronds in autumn.

Especially valuable for their colouring are the epimediums or barren-worts. Their obliquely heart-shaped leaves take on good autumnal colouring, and their sprays of dainty small flowers are always a welcome sight in early spring. There are white, pink, yellow, reddish purple and orange shaded pink-flowered species. They make good edging plants for the fern border, six to twelve inches high. The white Epimedium youngianum niveum is perhaps the daintiest species for the smaller garden, E. macranthum, ‘Rose Queen’, is a fine, slightly larger variety.

09. May 2011 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Ferns, Plants & Trees | Tags: , | Comments Off on The Mixed Fern Border


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