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Fabulous Ferns for France

Fabulous Ferns for France

Adding elegance and grace to any garden, the fern is once again gaining in popularity. Trevor Bridge explores the wide variety available and advises which ones will thrive in our region of France…

When we think of ferns, fougères, we conjure up images of cool walks by woodland streams and shaded dells. Ferns grow in shady, wet conditions and even in standing water but, although most prefer moist soil, some tolerate dry situations and some prefer full sun.


By the late 18th century, influenced by the English landscape garden movement and due to the expense of maintaining elaborate gardens like Versailles, French garden design changed. Symmetrical, formal gardens with their clipped parterres, lawns and straight lines were discarded in favour of a natural style. It became fashionable to emulate pastoral scenes, creating an idealised version of the countryside. Simultaneously there was interest in Chinese garden design which also gave prominence to anti-symmetry and rustic representations of the countryside. William Chambers, an English architect who travelled extensively in China, created the Chinese Garden at Kew, London. Through this garden and his writings, which were translated into French, Chinese gardens became fashionable in England and France.


These moves brought features such as grottoes, ruins, bridges, statues, ponds, caverns and rockeries into play. There was little space for ferns in the earlier formal gardens, but now there was a great opportunity for them. With their graceful arching fronds they were ideal for these naturalistic designs and were at home next to streams and water features, in woodlands in damp, shady corners, and in the open on walls and rock faces.

During the late 19th century an obsession hit Britain; fern-mania. Establishing ferneries and collecting and cultivating ferns became fanatical, and the fern motif was embraced in art, pottery, carving, metalwork and fabrics. Ferns became the most fashion-able of plants and, with the advent of the railways, thousands ventured into the countryside armed with fern-trowels to procure them. Glazed cases, terrariums, made it possible to grow ferns indoors. This craze spread across Europe and highly decorative examples with delicate tracery graced drawing rooms while ferneries became essential in gardens aspiring to be at the height of fashion.


The early 20th century saw a French craze for Japanese gardens with bridges, shrines and oriental plants such as azaleas, magnolias, maples and, of course, extensive use of ferns. The largest oriental garden in Europe, the Parc Oriental de Maulévrier in the Loire Valley, was created at this time.

Ferns dropped out of fashion soon after, however, their use becoming mainly restricted to woodlands and isolated garden areas until relatively recently. Interest in them is now escalating as people rediscover their elegant foliage, their wide range of size, shape and texture and how well they complement other plants.


Cultivating ferns

Most ferns are easily cultivated, preferring moist, shady conditions. Many tolerate some sunlight but the more sun they get, the more water they require. A few even tolerate hot, dry conditions. Ferns survive short dry spells; their growth slows and they turn brown but they normally recover as rain returns. Most prefer well cultivated, neutral to alkaline garden soil. Ferns are normally sold potted and, while many common ones are sold at garden centres, specialist suppliers provide a more comprehensive service. They need to be planted deeply to avoid rocking and ensuring the crown is free from soil between April and October. Close the soil around the roots but not as firmly as when planting shrubs. They should be well watered until established but require little maintenance afterwards. They will, however, appreciate moisture-retentive mulches of leaf mould to mimic their forest floor environment. Ferns are shallow-rooting so be careful when weeding, especially in spring when new growth emerges. Don’t cut back ferns in autumn, leave the fronds for over-winter protection before removing dead fronds in spring.

All the following examples are easily cultivated.


Choosing ferns

Large ferns make effective specimen plants and are good as backdrops for annuals and perennials or filling bare spaces, particularly under trees. The striking form of Royal Fern, Osmonde royale (Osmunda regalis), makes an excellent single-specimen focal point. Attaining 1.5m in height, it is deciduous and native to Europe, occurring at stream-sides and in woodlands. Its ‘Purpurescens’ form, with young copper-green fronds that mature to purple, is excellent beside water. The large Ostrich Ferns, Fougère plume d'autruche (Matteuccia struthiopteris), with their strong, 1.5m high, bright green feathery fronds are excellent at the back of borders and in cottage gardens. They are easily grown in moist shade, tolerating very wet conditions.

The native Golden Scale Fern, Fausse fougère mâle (Dryopteris affinis) has been cultivated since the 1800s and it forms 1.2m high clumps of arching, deep green fronds. It thrives in moist, shady situations and it looks superb in a container. Its cultivar ‘Cristata’ has lovely deep golden fronds. Another deciduous native, the robust Male Fern, Fougère mâle 'Cristata' (Dryopteris felix-mas), has attractive tufts of lance-shaped bright green fronds, 1.2m high. It grows in light shade or full sun if given ample moisture. It is excellent beneath trees or tucked into a shady corner.

Medium sized ferns include the Maidenhair Fern, Capillaire (Adiantum pedatum), a hardy deciduous species native to mid-west USA. With its dainty, light green, 45cm high fronds it thrives in well drained to damp soils. It is a good cottage or woodland garden specimen, ideal for low maintenance borders.



Lady Ferns, Fougère femelle (Athyrium filix-femina), are European natives and with their fresh green, exquisitely delicate, lacy fronds attain 80cm in moist-shade or semi-shade and provide good ground cover.

New York Ferns, Thélyptère de New York (Theltypteris noveboracensis), are soft, finely textured, deciduous, yellow-green ferns that grow beautifully in shady woodland. They are also one of the most sun and drought tolerant ferns, spreading by rhizomes to form lovely, dense ground cover 60cm high.

Also good for ground cover is the Oak Fern, Polypode du Chêne (Gymnocarpium dryopteris), which forms extensive, low, spreading carpets of striking bright green fronds. It is native to Europe, deciduous and robust, preferring neutral to acid, moist soil in shade.

Polypody, Polypode commun (Polypodium vulgare), is an evergreen native which tolerates damp or dry soils in sun or dappled shade. It has attractive lacy, dark green fronds and happily spreads under trees and on walls without being invasive.

Consider other evergreens such as the Japanese Shield Fern, Fougère dryopteris erythrosora (Dryopteris erythrosora), one of the best garden ferns producing compact clumps of 75cm high bronze fronds all summer in light shade or full sun if given ample moisture.

The Deer Fern, Blechnum en épi (Blechnum spicant), a European native, grows well in moist shade and attains 50cm. It is a neat, spreading, evergreen, with narrow, dark green shiny fronds which glisten beautifully in filtered sunlight. For this reason it is excellent growing under trees.

The native Hart’s Tongue Fern, Scolopendre langue de bœuf (Asplenum scolopendrium), is tropical in appearance with attractive, wide glossy green fronds. It grows in partial or full shade and is suited to rock gardens or edging in moist woodland gardens, forming low clumps 40cm high.

The Maidenhair Spleenwort, Fausse capillaire (Asplenum trichomanes), is the familiar, pretty, native, fern seen growing in tufts on dry walls, rocks and mossy branches and is ideal for rockeries, crevices or walls.

Another native, the Hard Shield Fern, Aspidie lobée (Polystichum aculeatum), has attractive dark green, tapering, finely cut, feathery fronds 45cm high. It prefers partial or full shade and well drained or moist conditions.

The Soft Shield Fern, Aspidie à cils raides (Polystichum setiferum), is a tufted native fern, 1.2m high, with lovely rosettes of soft, lance-shaped, mid green fronds.It prefers fertile, moist, shaded sites where it is excellent for all year cover.


Ferns add a touch of class, bringing freshness and light to the garden.They combine beautifully with other shade loving plants such as Hosta and Hellebore and contrast attractively with the foliage of Alchemilla, Brunnera, Euphorbia, Hemerocallis, Iris, Polygonatum and Pulmonaria. The Maidenhair Fern’s light green foliage combines well with the dark green Hard Shield Fern. The bronze Japanese Shield Fern adds warmth to shady areas and looks stunning with chartreuse coloured Hostas, Heucheras and Tiarellas, as well as bronze coloured Heucheras and Epimediums.

Ferns can define the line of a walk through trees; they can nestle beautifully in a slope at the edge of a pond, or planted en masse in a shady garden, they create uniformity. This effect can be achieved using a single species or can be equally successful with a mix of species of varying textures and sizes. A single large fern placed carefully at the side of a path or in a corner can form an ornate, elegant focal point.


Have a look in your garden, or around the areas where you live. You may well be surprised to find some ferns already growing there, or become more aware of ones that you had hardly noticed before. This certainly happened to me and I now see parts of our garden and places where I walk in a slightly different light. Moreover, consider planting some ferns to create variety in your garden. Enjoy watching how they grow, observe their detailed fronds slowly unfurling through the season to reveal their detailed and delicate foliage. Hopefully you will be captivated.


Trevor is a landscape architect who ran a busy practice in the UK for 20 years. He and his wife Jocelyn moved to an ancient fermette in Poitou-Charentes in 2004 where they garden organically and keep bees and hens.

© Living Magazine - all rights reserved. Published December 2014.