By Lori Murray | Cameron County Master Gardener, Texas Superstar Specialist
With appreciation to the late Audrey Paterson.
Ferns are one of the most diverse groups of plants in the world, with thousands of species spread across the most temperate parts of the globe. They are a popular choice for shade gardens because they add a soft elegance to the landscape, and in nature they can offer benefits to the soil and to the environment.
The root system of a fern, typically a long thin, horizontal web of rhizomes beneath the soil’s surface, adds moisture to the soil. It also stabilizes the soil and thus prevents erosion.
Ferns are also popular ornamental plants: florists would be lost without them for sure! They use the fronds in both bouquets and in wreaths, much as we who are fortunate enough to have fern readily available in our yards use it with our cut flowers.
Three varieties of Asparagus Fern do well in the Valley. They are not, however, really fern, but belong to the lily family. Some are good container plants and others are useful in flower arrangements.
>> Asparagus Sprengeri
Asparagus Sprengeri is the most commonly found. This is the variety we refer to as asparagus fern. It has long narrow strips of needles much like those of a fir tree.
It grows best in filtered light, but will tolerate some sun. It is vigorous with long graceful stems that are covered with soft, thin, needle-like leaves.
Sprengeri is very effective in a hanging basket. It will also do well in a planter box, but if left too long without thinning, its roots can actually create enough pressure to crack the box.
Each piece grows from a nut or small bulb beneath ground. Asparagus fern survived the February freeze without much protection although it didn’t look too good at first.
>> Asparagus Meyerii
Asparagus Meyerii, also called Foxtail Fern, forms pale green cylindrical plumes resembling the arched tail of a fox. The stems are stiff and the “tails” wave in the Valley breezes. Its growth forms in stout clumps and springs from the soil level.
This plant requires periodic removal of bare stems as old stems die and are replaced by new ones. It will take full sun and is extremely attractive in a big pot.
It actually prefers to be somewhat pot-bound, but its root ball will continue to grow over the top of the pot and practically scream that it needs to be divided.
Mine looked like a goner in February. I hadn’t covered it because it survived the snow of a couple years ago with no problem. It lost all its fronds but came right back from its huge root ball (I had intended to split that root ball this spring but still haven’t gotten to it.)
Now it looks better than ever.
>> Asparagus Setacceus
Asparagus Setacceus has a more delicate and lacy appearance.
It’s a bushy evergreen twining vine that can scale a surface. Growth is on long, rather rambling stems, sort of wispy fronds – but this is an attractive variety to use with cut flowers such as roses. If offered the proper surface, it will climb with its small thorns that help it grasp surfaces.
Plant fern in well-drained soil. It likes high humidity and will thrive here if kept moist and shaded. (But, as with any other plant, do not allow fern to stand in water or it will die.)
Fern can be used as a focal point or to soften the edges of a building or patio. It can fill in an empty area in a charming way while the different cut-leaf designs and varying tones of green can add another dimension to your landscape.