Give These Time-Tested Plants Some Shade

May 30, 2023 – Lynda DeWitt

Want a low-maintenance, high-functioning plant for your shady areas? Ferns provide both form and function in our gardens as their shapely leaves, called fronds, give shelter to robins, catbirds, wrens, and other ground-feeding birds. Frogs and turtles often hide under their fairy-size canopy, while ferns’ reproductive spores provide food for insects. Best of all, most ferns are resistant to the all-you-can-eat appetites of rabbits and deer. Ferns also help with erosion control, but among our native ferns, only the Christmas fern is evergreen.

Emerging coiled fronds, called fiddleheads, are a favorite springtime sight — and not an uncommon addition in veggie stir-fries.

Prehistoric forests were filled with ferns. And these living fossils continue to provide useful beauty in today’s gardens. Email Sust for help placing and planting ferns and other shade-loving flora in your yard.

Sensitive Ferns can spread easily by rhizomes. The name refers to the plant’s sensitivity to frost.

Ostrich fiddleheads, on left, taste similar to asparagus when cooked. (Never eat them raw!) As new growth comes in, on right, older leaves turn brown and can be snipped off. Ostrich ferns spread by rhizomes and can overtake an area if not divided.

Christmas ferns are hardy, evergreen ferns found throughout much of the eastern U.S. These clump forming ferns get wider with time, but do not spread.

Lush and feathery, Lady ferns have an arching growth habit. The more sun they receive, the more water they’ll need.

Maidenhair fiddleheads, at left, appear in mid-April in our area and less than a month later their frilly fronds stand up to two feet tall on slim stalks, at right.

Our Native Ferns


Christmas fern

(Polystichum acrostichoides)


Cinnamon Fern

(Osmunda cinnamomea)


Lady Fern 

(Athyrium filix-femina)


Maidenhair Fern

(Adiantum pedatum)


Ostrich fern 

(Matteuccia struthiopteris)


Royal Fern 

(Osmunda regalis)


Sensitive Fern 

(Onoclea sensibilis)


Wood Fern 

(Dryopteris marginalis)

Check out the work of Bethesda-based artist Amy Lamb whose photographs celebrate the structure and beauty of ferns and many other plants.

Fern Study I

© 2023 Amy Lamb Studio, LLC. All rights are reserved.


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