Magical Maidenhair

Credit: Carolyn Jones

Urban growth and the popularity of planting trees have led to the progressive shading of the settled landscape. In response, gardeners have begun to seek attractive shade dwellers, which often lack the brilliant hues of sun lovers. Instead they please us with texture, form and variation on the green colour theme. Enter the ferns; wildly popular in Victorian times, they fell into disfavour for more than half a century but now are making a strong comeback. Among British Columbia’s rich fern flora, the maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum, also known as A. aleuticum) has exceptional beauty.

Maidenhair ferns are in part fascinating because they look somewhat like a fern, yet oddly and pleasingly different. Our typical garden and houseplant ferns have large, green, feather-like fronds sprouting from a central crown. The widely known native sword fern (Polystichum munitum) and lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) are good examples of this structure. Maidenhair, rather than having long, single-stalked fronds, bears fronds that repeatedly branch to the outside, presenting a graceful fan.
Plants grow 10 to 75 cm (4 to 30 in.) tall from scaly rhizomes and in nature sport only a single or few deciduous leafy stems. In cultivated specimens, however, a mass of rhizomes develops and produces a dense clump of shiny brown to dark-purple stalks lined with leaflets. The leaflets are arranged in the standard fern form, sometimes opposite each other, sometimes alternating.

Ferns are primitive plants without flowers. Instead, they produce spores in sacs called sporangia. This fern’s brownish sporangia are arranged on the underside of the upper edge of the leaflet and the leaflet edge rolls under slightly to protect them. Sporangia appear in late summer.

Maidenhair ferns mainly inhabit shady moist forests. They favour sites rich in humus but also spring out from among rocks, especially limestone. Look for them on stream banks, cliffs and especially in the spray zone of waterfalls. Though typically a shade lover, on the north end of Vancouver Island this fern colonizes the sunny limestone rubble of logging roads, suggesting it is widely adaptable. You will find maidenhair fern throughout southern British Columbia, but especially lurking in moist coastal conifer forests. It occurs throughout much of the temperate zone of North America as well as in eastern Asia.

Choose a shaded to partially shaded setting in the garden with soil rich in humus. The best settings include the edges of ponds, streams or boggy corners. It will also thrive in moist borders and shady rock gardens as long as it is not in direct competition with taller, robust herbaceous plants and low shrubs. In a favourable site, maidenhair fern may spread into a clump a metre (39 in.) across. Plants of various sizes, including a dwarf B.C. native form, are widely available from garden centres. You can raise your own ferns by collecting the fertile leaflets. Store them dry in an envelope, then shake out the spores in late fall or early spring (March) onto moist peaty soil to germinate and grow. Plants are also easily propagated in early spring by dividing the rhizome into fragments, each with a growing tip; plant just under the surface of humus-rich soil.

Coastal First Nations from the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii) to Washington State used the shiny stalks of maidenhair fern to decorate woven basketry. The Hesquiat dancers of western Vancouver Island chewed the fronds or drank a preparation made from frond ashes to give them endurance. In Europe, the leaflets were used to make cough medicine.

Ferns are fantastic. Start your backyard fern adventures with our native maidenhair and enjoy its beautiful form in a moist shady corner of the garden.

The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated (turn to page 6 for our zone chart): Adiantum pedatum (maidenhair fern) – zone 3 • Polystichum munitum (sword fern) – zone 4 • Athyrium filix-femina (lady fern) – zone 4

An expert on native plants, Richard Hebda is curator of Botany and Earth History at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.