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Originally published Friday, February 7, 2014 at 11:04 AM

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It’s evergreen ferns to the rescue for winter gardens

Fern expert Richie Steffen, of the Elisabeth C. Miller Garden, offers up some favorites that he wouldn’t garden without.

Special to The Seattle Times

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IS THERE a more useful plant than evergreen ferns? They’re the stalwarts of the winter garden. Slugs are munching on the tiny iris that are just starting to bloom, and camellia blossoms brown out with every freeze. But ferns spread their fronds luxuriantly toward the wintry sky, holding their architectural shape through freezes and snowfall.

If ferns didn’t grow wild in our woods, and if their botanical names weren’t so impenetrable, they’d be as popular as hostas, as treasured as peonies. They’re the unusual plant that is easy for beginners to grow yet fancied by the most experienced gardeners.

The longer you garden, the more you appreciate how ferns carry the garden through winter, then in spring and summer form the perfect textural green backdrop for bulbs and perennials. And they have sex lives so varied and complex that entire books have been written about how they reproduce.

Lacy maidenhair ferns and silvery painted ferns are summer delicacies. Now, when the garden is still leafless, it’s all about evergreen ferns, and plenty of them thrive here in the Northwest.

My favorite is autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) for its russet coloring in springtime and because it grows only about 2 feet tall. It spreads slowly into a sturdy ground cover and looks great paired with chartreuse or blue-toned foliages.

For a more expert opinion, I turned to Richie Steffen of the Elisabeth C. Miller Garden, which is a trove of fern species. Steffen is busy writing a guide to our ferns, but he took time to enthuse about a few he wouldn’t garden without.

Steffen considers Dyce’s holly fern (Polystichum x dycei) to be one of the very best recent introductions. This isn’t a fern you’ll find growing underfoot next time you’re out hiking. It was bred in a lab at Leeds University in the United Kingdom from parents both vigorous and super hardy. It has shiny green fronds that arch up into a big vase shape nearly 3 feet tall.

Asian saber ferns (Polystichum neolobatum) are as dramatic as their common name sounds, with shiny, narrow, rigid fronds that pop right back up after a snowstorm. They grow about 2½ feet tall and tolerate full shade in summer.

“I love a fern that has more letters in its name than the alphabet,” says Steffen of the plumose soft shield fern (Polystichum setiferum Plumosomultilobum Group). He calls this Victorian beauty “a must-have for every Northwest garden.” Its fronds are fluffy and delicate-looking, covered in fine silver hairs. Yet the plant is tough, fully evergreen and drought tolerant.

We tend to overlook our native ferns, despite the fact that Western sword ferns, particularly, are revered in England for their resilience and strong, architectural lines. Leather polypody (Polypodlum scouleri) is a compact, evergreen version of the licorice fern. In the wild, it grows on trees, particularly Sitka spruces, but it does just fine growing in the ground. Sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) are considered the king of ferns for their stately looks. Where I grew up in Lake Forest Park, north of Seattle, sword ferns grew everywhere, along the sides of creeks, in the woods and fields. We regularly pulled them up to throw them, pointed ends first, toward our playmates. No wonder these most familiar of ferns don’t get the respect they deserve.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at

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