True to its name, lady fern’s shapely form lends delicate elegance and subdued charm to shady woods and landscapes. Green to reddish fiddleheads emerge in May, gradually unfurling into erect, 3-foot fronds with a distinct diamond shape that tapers at both ends. The finely cut pinnae (leaflets) give the fern a lacy appearance, and the sori on the undersides of the pinnae are variously elongated and curved. Lady fern grows in a circular, shuttlecock-like manner and spreads at an average rate to form clumps or groups via shallow rhizomes. It’s native to North America, Europe, and Asia and is usually found in wet or moist sites with rich, well-drained soils. In the garden, it should be fine with average conditions as long as it doesn’t sit in soggy soils. It does well in high humidity and benefits from some protection from the wind. Lady fern’s light green fronds shine in dappled sunlight, looking lovely from spring until the first frost in fall. Unlike some species, lady fern can withstand full sun as long as it has consistent moisture. Once established, it has moderate drought tolerance.
The genus name comes from the Greek word athyros, meaning “doorless,” in reference to the hinged indusia (sori covering) that barely opens. One source says that the eyelid-shaped indusia inspired the common names lady fern and female fern, and the specific epithet, filix-femina, translates to “lady fern.”
There are plenty of reasons to consider incorporating ferns into the landscape. Ferns evolved over 200 million years before flowering plants, and that surely merits continued inclusion! These unique plants are flowerless and fruitless, reproducing through the release of spores and spreading by rhizomes to form extensive root systems that play a crucial role in filtering water. While they don’t attract pollinators, many fern species do provide food for the larvae of several insects. Some species of spiders roll the tips of the fronds to make a safe place to lay their eggs and raise their young. Ferns’ dense foliage shelters a wide variety of mammals, amphibians, and insects during summer and winter. Birds use parts of the plants as material for their nests. Deer and squirrels rarely eat the tough fronds. And finally, ferns are simply beautiful additions to the landscape. Their delicate texture is a striking contrast to broad-leaved and flowering plants, and ferns are prolific in shady areas, making them ideal for grouping under trees, along the edges of woods or streams, interplanted with spring ephemerals, or used as a groundcover in dry or moist shade. Established clumps can be easily divided in early spring before new growth begins.
Native habitats include moist to wet forests, swamps, meadows, clearings, and streambanks. Use as a specimen plant or massed for a lush, natural look. Great for shaded rock or woodland gardens, the front of shady borders, and banks of streams or ponds. Useful as a groundcover on the north or east side of buildings.
Grows 2-3’ tall and 12-30” wide and occasionally up to 5’ tall.
Prefers part to full shade but tolerates full sun with enough moisture.
Thrives in moist, loamy, rich, well-drained soils but adapts to a variety of conditions.
Frond is 2-3 times pinnate, 2-3’ long, and 4-6” wide. Along the length of the frond are 20-30 alternate, elliptic, widely spaced pinnae with narrow, pointed tips. Sterile and fertile fronds look the same topside. Reddish stems occur sporadically within this genus.
Short rhizome produces fronds at its tips. Short stipe has brown scales.
Lady fern is a host plant for ghostly fern moth and two other species of Lepidoptera. Birds use the spent stalks for nesting materials. Lady fern shelters many mammals, amphibians, and insects in the summer months from heat and predators.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Lady fern has been used to treat lung and breathing problems, coughs, and digestive illnesses.
Some sources say the fiddleheads are edible when cooked.
Caution: Most of the plant parts, including raw fiddleheads, are poisonous.
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