Although most of us know that the bracken that covers our hillsides is a fern, and is obviously an exceptionally robust and resilient plant, many gardeners think ferns are fussy.
But no. While some ferns certainly demand special conditions, there’s a good range of different species that are hardy, easy to grow and bring their unique delicacy and charm to many different garden situations.
Generally ferns enjoy a shady spot with soil that's not too dry. These RHS Award of Garden Merit-winning ferns cover a good range of sites and situations. Numbers at the end of each entry refer to the plant's height and hardiness rating.
The maidenhair fern is a favourite and familiar house plant – this is the tough-as-nails outdoor version, and it features unique and distinctive fronds. Each wiry black stem of Adiantum aleuticum is topped by a swirl of fronds, each lined with pairs of small leaflets, and arching like a frilly umbrella. Ideal in moist but well-drained soil at the foot of a north wall. 30-60cm (1-2ft). H6.
One of those intriguing ferns with two completely different kinds of growth, the evergreen fronds of the British native hard fern, Blechnum spicant, are long and slender and divided into opposite pairs of tough little dark green leaflets. The fronds that carry the spores are stiffly vertical and fade to brown as the spores develop. Tough and easy in moist and well-drained and shady sites, sometimes growing on cool walls, but dislikes lime. 30-45cm (12-18in). H6.
Autumn, or spring, fern?
The common name for Dryopteris erythrosora is the autumn fern – perversely, because although the evergreen fronds are the colour of autumn foliage they develop their pink or red colouring as they emerge in spring then mature to dark glossy green. Each frond is prettily divided two or three times into opposite pairs of leaflets and the spring colour of ‘Brilliance’ is especially bright. Happy in moist shade. 60cm (2ft). H5
Bold and dramatic
The shuttlecock fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, is an impressive plant. Individual crowns develop tall, fresh green, parallel sided fronds in an imposing shuttlecock shape and send out leafless runners to produce new crowns, sometimes 30-45cm away. The result is a spreading, increasingly dense colony that is not suitable for a small garden but magnificent in a large one. In summer, much reduced green fronds develop vertically from each crown and soon turn black as the spores develop. Insists on moisture. 1.2m (4ft). H4.
A sensitive fern
Called the sensitive fern, not because its fronds move when you touch them, but because the very first autumn frost kills off the leaves. Colonising quickly in wet conditions, sun or shade, the egg-shaped fronds of Onoclea sensibilis are often tinted pink as they emerge before maturing to a slightly bluish green. Invaluable on pond margins, I’ve noticed that the network of rhizomes helps bind marginal soils. 30-45cm. H6.
The 'flowering' fern
The cinnamon fern, Osmunda cinnamomea, (syn. Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) is a lovely thing. Making tight clumps of upright shuttlecocks created by a ring of fresh green fronds, in spring the plant is transformed. In the centre of the shuttlecock tight plumes of cinnamon brown spore-bearing fronds emerge and almost seem like flowers. I like the way the crowns develop almost on top of each other to create a display packed with interest and colour. 90cm (3ft). H7.
Wonderful on walls
This is a strange but wonderful little fern, happily creeping over limy rocks with its network of slender but strong brown rhizomes clinging tightly. Happy in full sun or a little shade, the thin, rather papery, sharply divided fronds of Polypodium cambricum ‘Cambricum’ emerge in July and August and remain attractive right through till spring before taking a break. I find that one plant set carefully between stones in a wall soon starts to spread. First described in 1668! 40cm (16in). H7.
Restrained and refined
This is one of our most attractive native ferns and one that is ideal in small spaces; not only does it not spread, but each plant rarely makes more than one crown. So the hard shield fern, Polystichum aculeatum, can mature in your shade garden in arching elegance and with the bonus of its neatly divided dark green fronds being enduringly evergreen. The fronds may droop by early spring, but associate well with bergenia foliage. 40-60cm (16-24in). H7.