Dryopteris filix-mas

I once bought from a reliable firm a collection of ferns for dry shade, and I planted them in dry shade. Only one succeeded, the inestimable Dryoptens filix-mas. This, the true male fern, is not just a filler for an awkward spot in the garden, but is a very beautiful plant indeed. It is a British native, widely distributed in woodlands, preferring some moisture, when it will grow 3 to 4 feet (90 to 120 cm) high, but willing to make a home in dry shade if planted with plenty of humus, though it may not make so large a plant.

In spring, the fronds of the fern appear above the ground curled up like snails. These unfurl quickly and within a month have swelled into rich green sprays of pinnate leaves growing in all directions from the centre, like a fountain. The shape of the plant is so perfect that it is a pity to let side shoots develop, making a formless clump. If possible, cut them away, leaving a single crown, or divide the plant from time to time. By mid-summer, masses of brown spores appear on the under surface of the fertile leaves, but some leaves are barren, and will be a brighter green. In autumn the plant dies down, but in a wet season it will remain green almost into winter.

Like most ferns with divided leaves, this Dryopteris reveals its beauty best if grown in isolation, or several plants can be scattered a few feet apart, perhaps in a carpet of ivy, or other ground-cover with low, uncompetitive foliage.

Ferns were enormously popular with Victorian gardeners, then suffered a decline, but today, when foliage is again as highly prized as flowers, they are enjoying a major revival.

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