Hardy Fern Habitats

When I think of hardy ferns, the environment that first springs to mind is the shade of moist woodlands or the dappled sunlight along a stream bank. Yet ferns are a versatile, highly adaptable family of plants containing species that can withstand considerable drought and even baking sun. If you have adequate space, hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctiloba) can make a lovely groundcover in dry shade, and it also tolerates sun. A rapid spreader, it has light-green, 12-inch fronds. Ebony spleenwort (Asplenium platyneuron) has dark-green fronds, 8 to 18 inches long, and is another good choice for natural areas. It is happy in dry, well-drained soil in partial shade. It is evergreen in most places, as is the larger Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), which has dark-green fronds 12 to 24 inches long. Once established, Christmas fern adapts well to dry soils in shade or part sun. The colorful Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum), though a workhorse in moist, shady gardens, also seems to acclimate well to drier conditions. The genus Cheilanthes, whose members are called lip or cloak ferns, contains some native and exotic standouts for sunny rock gardens. The lovely, sage-green Ecklon's lip fern (C. eckloniana) admirably survived our dry summer in a rock border at J.C. Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh with little aid and comfort. The Alabama lip fern (C. alabamensis) and wooly lip fern (C. tomentosa) are contemporaries with similar stamina. Sources for these and other hardy ferns, as well as helpful cultivation advice, include Plant Delights Nursery (www.plantdelights.com) and Sandy Mush Herb Nursery (www.sandymushherbs.com).

Hort Shorts

  • Why wait for spring and summer to indulge in Mother Nature's fragrant blossoms? There are many sweet-scented plants to keep the nose engaged through the winter. Osmanthus is a family of large shrubs with evergreen leaves (holly-like in some species) and small, deliciously sweet flowers. Other large shrubs with both beautiful and fragrant winter blossoms include witch hazels (Hamamelis), paper bush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) and wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox). Fragrant winter daphne (Daphne odora) is a smaller shrub (to about 4 feet tall) that is famously finicky but worth any amount of time you get to spend with it.
  • Spice up the kitchens of friends and family with dried herbs from your garden. Miniature bags of homemade seasoning mix make adorable and delicious gifts. For tomato soups, try this recipe (fills six 2-by-2-inch bags) from the folks at Sandy Mush Herb Nursery: 2 teaspoons of basil, 4 tablespoons of celery seed or 2 tablespoons of lovage, 2 tablespoons of parsley, 2 teaspoons of thyme, 2 crushed bay leaves, 6 cloves (1 per bag) and 2 tablespoons of chives. Each bag will season 2 quarts of liquid.

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