JARS v51n3 - Ferns in the Cecil and Molly Smith Garden

Ferns in the Cecil and Molly Smith Garden
Peter Kendall
Portland, Oregon

Reprinted from the the Cecil and Molly Smith Garden newsletter, November 1993

Of the many plants accompanying rhododendrons in the Smith Garden, perhaps none are more understated, yet supremely handsome, than the ferns. In their monochromatic green garb, their varying forms and textures are among the most versatile at occupying various niches throughout the premises.

The first to come to mind is the common sword fern ( Polystichum munitum ). Although this fern is found in abundance in every part of the garden, it serves to mark unmistakably the garden's woodland character; it is that indispensable thread that ties the whole layout together. Closely allied with this fern is the Alaska fern ( Polystichum setiferum ) which, though very similar in form, has a captivatingly different texture.

Sword fern
Sword fern ( Polystichum munitum ).
"It serves to mark unmistakably
the garden's woodland character."

With the sword fern setting the general tone of the garden, the Western maidenhair fern ( Adiantum aleuticum ), found far less frequently, provides a singular counterpoint in form and texture to the solidity of the former. It is of the highest beauty and delicacy with fans of light green leaflets radiating like fingers from a wire-thin black rachis. A real charmer is the dwarf form or ecotype of this fern, A. aleuticum subpumilium , which rises and spreads but a few inches. In the same genus is the Himalayan maidenhair ( A. venustum ) which through equal in delicacy to the Western maidenhair, hugs the ground in its alluring manner.

Maidenhair fern
Maidenhair fern ( Adiantum aleuticum )
"It is of the highest beauty and delicacy."

Another of the ferns which invites frequent admirers and is fairly prevalent is our native deer fern ( Blechnum spicant ). It is very clean in its lines and provokes curiosity in its sporting of fertile and infertile fronds simultaneously on the same plant. Very similar to the common deer fern is the miniature and prostrate New Zealand deer fern ( Blechnumpenna marina ), which is surprisingly hardy in this part of the world.

Deer fern
Deer fern ( Blechnum spicant ).
"It is very clean in its
lines and provokes curiosity."

If the sword fern sets the stage for the ground-dwelling woodland plants, the licorice fern ( Polypodium glycyrrhiza ) certainly enhances the woodland feeling overhead. It is most often seen in conjunction with the big leaf maple ( Acer macrophyllum ), attached to its mossy trunk or perched on its equally mossy limbs.

Native to Europe and the eastern United States is the Hart's tongue fern ( Phyllitis scolopendñum ) which conforms to its name in its oddly strap-shaped fronds. It is found variously in the garden and is very adaptable where moisture is not a problem.

It is in the spring that one of the larger, and certainly most regally captivating of the Smith Garden ferns, comes into play. This is the cinnamon fern ( Osmunda cinnamonea ) which in its beauty and texture stands easily above the rest of the ferns, especially when it is first unfolding. It is perhaps fitting that the brilliance of its display lasts little longer than the end of spring, at which time it retreats to a less ostentatious presence for the balance of the year. When planning a garden, it's a good idea to keep in mind planting associations. When one plant is in flower plan to have another plant nearby to either contrast or compliment it. This will help to show the best attributes of each.

To carpet the ground with the small early flowering Narcissus cyclamineus ; the size difference would be striking. Light conditions might be a problem, but with some could be overcome.

Just as we place rhododendrons in the garden to try to capture the late afternoon sunlight striking the back of the florets, we can create pleasant sights with planting combinations.