Ferns are a truly ancient group of plants and great survivors: they first appeared in the fossil record around 360 million years ago – that’s about 200 million years before flowering plants and 100 million years before mammals. The big showy ferns that we see are the ‘sporophyte’ generation and rather than produce seeds, they release vast numbers of minute spores. These spores, which can be dispersed by wind or water, germinate to produce a small, inconspicouous sexual generation {the ‘gametophyte’), which then goes on to produce another spore-producing fern.

Being great survivors, it is not surprising that ferns are tough and can tolerate harsh environments. They can survive and thrive in a wide variety of conditions, some very dry and exposed, some dark and dank. They make ideal plants for shade, and include quite a few species that will do well invevery gardener’s nightmare scenario: dry shade.

Asplenium scolopendrium

Hart’s tongue Fern

Native. An evergreen undivided fern with strap-shaped broad fronds, 30-60cm long. Grows wild in woodland, and on shady banks, rocks and walls.

Asplenium trichomanes

Maidenhair Spleenwort

Small, tufted, evergreen fern with blackinsh glossy stalks and midribs. Grows on walls and in rock crevices, and excellent for pots, sinks and rock gardens.

Athyrium filix-femina

Lady Fern

Native. A large fern with delicate fronds up to 1m long. Dies right back in winter. Widespread throughout Britain and Europe. Needs moist soils in  woodland or other shady places, but will grow in the open if the soil is reliably moist.

Athyrium niponicum metallicum

Japanese Painted Fern

From the Far East, with deciduous, metallic silver-grey fronds to 30cm long with a dark maroon midrib. Needs light shade, but its colours are more intense with some direct sun, preferably morning or late afternoon. Will tolerate dry conditions once well-established.

Blechnum spicant

Hard Fern

Native. Glossy green herring-bone like fronds up to 50cm long lasting through the winter, with the more slender and erect fertile fronds produced from  the centre of the crown. Good for shade and tolerates a variety of soils, but does best in a sheltered, moist position on acid soils.

Dryopteris affinis

Scaly Male-fern

A robust native fern. Differs from Male fern by the woolier (scaly) central midrib with a subtle dark mark on the underside where the side btranches joins the main stem. Good for a wide range of conditions, with the fronds usually lsting through the winter.

Dryopteris atrata

Black Wood-fern

From Eastern Asia. Evergreen or semi-evergreen, with narrow fronds up to 1m long. Prefers a moist soil in sun or shade.

Dryopteris dilatata

Broad Buckler Fern

Native. Long fronds to 150cms long arise from the dense crowns and arch outwards. For woods, hedge banks and shady rocks.

Dryopteris erythrosora

Japanese Wood Fern / Copper Shield Fern

From Eastern Asia. Semi-evergreen fronds up to 75cm long, coppery when young. Good for moist soils in light shade but will grow in full sun if the soil is reliably moist. Tolerant of dry shade once established.

Dryopteris filix-mas

Male Fern

Native. Fronds semi-evergreen, robust, rather erect, up to 120cm long. Good for both dry conditions and shade.

Dryopteris goldiana

Giant Wood Fern

Native to America, this fern has large light green fronds up to 90cm tall. The fresh growth is covered in light brown scales. Grows well in any moist to dryish soil. Will form a good sized clump in a few years.

Dryopteris lepidopoda

The Sunset Fern

Native to the Himalaya. Upright in habit with a pink flush to the glossy foliage in spring. The fronds then fade through bronze to pale green. Evergreen. Height to 60cm. For full shade.

Dryopteris sieboldii

Siebold’s Wood Fern

Native to China, Japan and Taiwan. It is a slow colonizer but likes to spread in dappled woodland shade. Once established, its quite drought tolerant . New fronds appear in summer, becoming leathery with a subtle blue tone. Height  to 75cm.

Dryopteris wallichiana

Alpine Wood Fern

Native to the Himalayas. In spring, Wallich’s wood fern produces bright green shuttlecock-like fronds on upright, hairy stems. Height to 90ccm. Once established will grow in dry shade.

Matteucia struthiopteris

Ostrich Fern

Native to Europe. Produces compact ‘shuttlecocks’ of leaves in spring that gradually open outwards before eventually dying back in winter. Needs a mois soil, preferbly shaded from hot sunshine and will ‘run’ to form clustes of plants.

Osmunda japonica

Asian Royal Fern

Similar to our native Royal Fern but more open with bronze coloured new growth. For damp soils and bog gardens.

Osmunda regalis

Royal Fern

Native. Growing to 2 metres of more with broad, coarsely-divided fronds, many ending in a spire of coopper-coloured spore-producing sporangia. Needs a moist or even a wet soil.

Osmunda regalis ‘Purpurascens’

Royal Fern

Form of Royal Fern but the stems and new fronds in spring are purple. Not as tall as regalis, likes a wet soil.

Polypodium vulgare

Common Polypody

Native. Evergreen, patch-forming fern with long, creeping above-ground rhizomes and divided fronds. Tolerates a very wide range of conditions and drought-resistant when well esablished. Will grow in the border as well as on  rocks, walls and banks and even on large trees.

Polystichum rigens

Japanese Holly Fern

From China and Japan. Evergreen leathery fronds up to 30cm long with stiff, pointed tips. Will tolerate dry conditions in partial shade but needs moist soil when growing in full sun.

Polystichum setiferum

Soft Shield Fern

Native. Tall, growing to 1m or more, with mostly evergreen ferns that are a soft, bright green. For most soils in shady areas.

Polystichum aculeatum

Hard Shield Fern

Native, with glossy green leathery fronds up to 1m long that last through the winter. Tolerates a wide range of conditions but particualy likes lime-rich soils.