Ferns ruled the world before the first flower ever bloomed. Maine gardeners should praise their feathery beauty.
- By: Richard Grant
It happened during that hushed interlude between afternoon and evening, the hour when unquiet spirits swirl in highball glasses out on the deck. I was walking alone down a shadowy back lane that connects our modest coastal village with the bigger town next door. From somewhere ahead came a rustling noise. I thought nothing of it at first (probably just a domestic animal being eaten alive by mosquitoes, I figured). Then from the corner of my eye I glimpsed a stirring among the undergrowth.
Suddenly, there she was. Rising to her full height, a deceptively demure-looking young woman stood before me. Her hair was tousled; she seemed slightly out of breath. In her hand she clutched one of those deadly implements you see in designer gardening catalogs, retailing for about the price of a small aircraft — no doubt it had an evocative name like the Cotswold smucker’s trog.
Only then did my glance fall upon the mangled object drooping piteously from the lady’s other hand. I was struck dumb. How long I stood there, staring in horror and disbelief, I cannot say. At last, recovering my senses, I fled screaming into the twilight.
Well, no, wait a minute. Now that I think back, I believe I managed to utter a few coherent syllables. Something like, “What are you doing there?”
A look of weary satisfaction came over the killer’s face. She confessed: “I’m trying to get rid of these ferns.”
Yes, my friends. The ravaged thing in her hand was a full-grown cinnamon fern, one of the glories of damp Maine woodlands. Now it hung limp, its life force ebbing. And on the ground nearby, as I now realized, lay at least two dozen more: lush, graceful, somewhat exotic-looking plants whose fronds had risen more than three feet high before being smote down with a trog.
“You’re getting rid of them?” I repeated numbly.
She must have thought me a bit slow. “What would you do with them?” she asked. Her tone was politely curious. I suppose, looking back, she might have hoped I could suggest a more efficient eradication technique.
I stammered, “I guess I’d . . . let them grow.”
“You would?” She regarded me thoughtfully, which had the effect of making me feel like a bumpkin. There was a time, not many years ago, when you didn’t feel you had to dress up to stroll into the town next door. Tempus fugit.
I believe I muttered something about cinnamon ferns being actually quite beautiful. The more so (I might have added, had my wits been closer about me) in their native milieu, under an open canopy of trees in moist, woodsy soil. Only then do they get so thick and tall you need a serious tool to get rid of them — in most places, they will all too happily keel over on their own. In a lucky setting like this one, you can toss in a few golden-leaved hostas and a taller accent specimen — say, meadow rue — and your friends will revere you as a horticultural goddess.
I hadn’t gotten far with this before the lady’s attention began to drift. Perhaps by now she feared I was some sort of local character.
If you go by that place today, the lawn runs all the way down to the road.
Now, I relate this little tale not as an isolated incident, but as one of a thousand stories, each as ghastly as the next, that could be told in many parts of Maine, especially with the narrow band of affluence and evolving demographics along the coast. I figure in some of these stories myself, not as local character, but as a clueless newbie. Maine presents, for most of us, quite a different landscape than the one we’re accustomed to. It’s beautiful — even the most clueless among us can tell that. But as with Shakespeare, this beauty unfolds in stages, fully revealing itself only upon thoughtful examination.
Back to the ferns, though.
“Nature made ferns for pure leaves,” Thoreau declared. And what leaves they are: the lacy, uncurling silhouettes of ferns can be easily recognized in fossil imprints dating from hundreds of millions of years ago. These plants evolved at a time when flowers had not yet been invented, and so they do not make seeds — modern ferns reproduce by spores, like their primitive ancestors. We associate them, correctly, with the age of dinosaurs, when they stood as the great trees of the Jurassic forest. In fanciful moments I wonder whether such half-felt primordial associations have anything to say about why we shun them in favor of grasses, which evoke the African savannah, our own evolutionary neighborhood.
The enlightened course, surely, is to welcome ferns into our home landscape, where their presence adds a note of serene luxuriance. “I find ferns invaluable,” says British plantswoman Beth Chatto, “for providing a contrast of leaf texture and form in the shady areas of the garden.” The principle is familiar to most of us, consciously or not, through the art of flower-arranging, where ferns are a universal binding agent: stick a frond or two in a vase with any flower, from the humble daisy to the extravagant bird-of-paradise, and the effect is pleasing. The fern’s soothing color and subtle texture effortlessly complement the flash and color of the main attraction. Achieving a similar effect in your backyard is no great trick; it’s chiefly a matter of choosing the right plant for the job. Toward this end, we must tackle a certain widespread misperception.
“Most people think ferns grow best in a wet, shady spot,” says Rick Sawyer, owner of Fernwood Nursery & Gardens in Swanville, and a specialist in native plants. “The truth is, ferns cover the whole gamut, just like trees or shrubs or any other perennial. Some ferns prefer a lot of sunlight and are highly tolerant of drought. Others are more sensitive. I sometimes tell people to drive around and look at the places where ferns are growing naturally, and then look at the area they’ve got and what the conditions are.”
While some native species, like the royal fern, Osmunda regalis, and its cousin the cinnamon fern, Osmunda cinnamomea, prefer soil that is rich in humus and stays damp all summer, many others thrive in less cushy circumstances. I told Sawyer about a small, evergreen fern that grew near my former house on top of a big rock in a thin layer of leaf debris.
“That was probably Polypodium virginianum,” he says. “The interesting thing about that fern is that when it dries up, the leaves shrivel and collapse so that it looks dead. Then after a rain, it perks right back up again. That’s the plant’s natural survival mechanism.”
For gardeners just starting out with ferns, or seeking varieties that are relatively bullet-proof, Sawyer offers these suggestions: Ostrich fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, is the source of those edible fiddleheads sold at farmers’ markets. It can be invasive when grown in ideal conditions, which makes it a good choice for a less-than-
Any member of the Dryopteris clan, including the male fern, D. filix-mas, and shield fern, D. marginalis, should tolerate poor, shallow soil and withstand a good deal of drought. New York fern, Thelypteris noveboracencis, and hay-scented fern, Dennstaedtia punctilobula, both provide vigorous, at times aggressive, ground cover. (A little patch of the latter spread quickly in gritty, acid soil beside my driveway, egged on perhaps by the manure I applied to nearby perennials, which it eventually swamped.)
Here are a couple more hardy specimens for which I can vouch from personal experience: Onoclea sensibilis, the so-called sensitive fern, was one of the tougher plants in my old pond-side garden. Its relatively simple, gray-leaves make a fine subdued backdrop for taller astilbes.
Christmas fern, Polystichum acrostichoides, hardly noticeable in summer, comes into its own from September onward, when its deep green leaves, glossy, and perdurable as plastic, manage to look alive all the way to spring.
Though not a native, the Japanese painted fern, Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’, does well in most parts of Maine, and by virtue of its unique coloring consorts handsomely with quieter things like lady’s mantle and plain-leaved hostas.
In gardening, ordinarily, it is a risky business to sit back and let nature take its course. You find yourself all too quickly with goatweed in the lily bed or lawn grass overrunning the irises. But where ferns are concerned, nature can hardly be improved upon. Whether ranging free among other woodland specimens or placed more deliberately in an organized planting, they are seldom less than lovely. And the feeling of lushness and tranquility they impart to any garden scene puts ferns — and the landscape that contains them — in a class all by itself.
- By: Richard Grant