The Curious Plantsman Looks at Broadleaf Ferns

By: Earl Nickel
http://www.normsnursery.blogspot.com

EARL NICKEL is an Oakland-based horticulturist, writer, and photographer. He writes a weekly column for the San Francisco Chronicle profiling…

More From This Author
Bird’s nest fern (Asplenium nidus).  Photo: KENwikiPEI CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Bird’s nest fern (Asplenium nidus). Photo: KENwikiPEI CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The subject of broadleaf ferns is at once obvious and a bit complicated. Quite simply, broadleaf ferns are those species that have a simple or undivided leaf, as opposed to the more common compound leaf, where each frond is divided multiple times. Though most of the ferns discussed here are classified as undivided, I make one exception by including the lovely Pteris cretica, the Cretan brake fern. The unifying principle here is the look of the leaves, and in that regard, all have distinctively broad leaves.

Bird’s nest fern (Asplenium nidus). Confused customers at the nursery I work at often ask “Is that a fern?” referring to the undivided frond structure of the lovely bird’s nest fern. A popular houseplant, bird’s nest fern features a bowl of angled, radiating leaves. Each glossy, apple-green frond has a distinctive, thin, black midrib. The lightly wavy fronds on this epiphytic fern are generally four to six inches wide and up to four feet long, although two feet long is more common when grown indoors. In their native tropical Africa and Asia, as the fronds age they form massive leafy nest-like clusters in trees, giving rise to their common name.

Bird’s nest ferns appreciate humidity. Indoors they are best suited for bathrooms or kitchens, although misting plants regularly will allow for other locations. They also make excellent terrarium additions, if your container is large enough. Their dramatic form also makes them excellent exterior entryway plants, where their tropical form can be admired.

The sprouts of this fern are a delicacy in Taiwan, where they are cut into inch-long pieces and fried with garlic and chili peppers.

Hart’s tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium).  Photo: H. Zell CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Hart’s tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium). Photo: H. Zell CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Hart’s tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium, syn. Phyllitis scolopendrium). 

To many a fern lover, hart’s tongue fern epitomizes the very essence of a broadleaf fern. New, undivided fronds unfurl into tall, glistening, green, tongue-like blades. A rhizomatous, evergreen fern native primarily to Europe, it quickly develops a thick clump of upward-reaching, lightly pleated leaves to 18 inches tall. Certain varieties feature attractively wavy margins. Sori (clusters of spore-producing sporangia) organized in rows on the underside of the fronds suggest the many legs of a centipede, leading to the species name (skolopendra means centipede in Greek). As to the plant’s common name, hart refers to an adult male red deer. The leaves of this plant, especially varieties that feature a forked tip to the leaves, were thought to invoke deer’s antlers. This smaller-scaled fern is best suited for edging in a moist woodland garden. It prefers a well-drained, lime-rich, growing medium and regular moisture; mulch plants with compost to keep soil moisture even.

Siebold’s wood fern (Dryopteris sieboldii).  Photo: Earl Nickel

Siebold’s wood fern (Dryopteris sieboldii). Photo: Earl Nickel

Siebold’s wood fern (Dryopteris sieboldii). Even among the considerable appeal of broad-leafed ferns, Siebold’s wood fern is a standout. It forms a horizontal cloud of thickly textured, frosty-green, curving fronds that resemble nothing else in the world of undivided ferns. Some liken the flat, splayed, almost rubbery leaves to giant hands. The Dryopteris genus contains approximately 250 species worldwide, with most found in temperate Asian forests.

Siebold’s wood ferns are tough. While other ferns wilt in the summer or disappear in the winter, this hardy specimen keeps going strong. They are drought tolerant once established, are easy to grow, and remain evergreen down to 5°F. Though slow-growing, plants reach a mature size of 20 inches tall and 2 feet wide. Their modest size and unique appearance make them points of interest in any shade garden. The name wood fern refers to the plant’s preferred habitat: moist forests, often atop decaying logs. Grow in partial or full shade. Though this species will tolerate most soils, it prefers humus-rich, well-drained soil.

Blue bear’s paw fern (Phlebodium pseudoaureum).  Photo: Daderot CC0 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Blue bear’s paw fern (Phlebodium pseudoaureum). Photo: Daderot CC0 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Blue bear’s paw fern (Phlebodium pseudoaureum formerly P. areolatum). This eye-catching species showcases upright, staghorn-like, deeply lobed fronds. These steel-blue “paws” start out tri-lobed, then slowly add more leaflets. Each frond gets to about a foot long and six inches wide. This native of the Gulf Coast, Caribbean, and Central America spreads slowly by thick, aboveground stolons (roots), densely covered with golden brown, fur-like hairs. The leaves turn a very attractive purplish color in cold weather. Use blue bear’s paw fern to contrast with a variety of lacier ferns or as a complement to blue-flowering shade perennials such as Brunnera or Omphalodes. A versatile fern, blue bear’s paw can also be grown as a houseplant.

Brake fern (Pteris cretica var. albolineata).  Photo: Jerzy Opioła GFDL Wikimedia Commons

Brake fern (Pteris cretica var. albolineata). Photo: Jerzy Opioła GFDL Wikimedia Commons

Brake fern (Pteris cretica var. albolineata). One of the most striking and beautiful of the broadleaf ferns, this species of brake fern displays arching mounds of thickly textured, lanceolate fronds with two to four pairs of undivided leaf blades, ending in an extended and undivided blade. This variety has two forms, one with a dark green border around a lighter green center and a popular variety featuring a thin green border outlining a wide, white center rib. The latter form really lightens a shady area and evokes the arching habit of Japanese Hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra). Plants can reach 18 inches tall by 24 inches wide and are evergreen in USDA Zones 9–12. Indoors, this fern prefers a warm, humid environment in bright indirect light. Potted specimens can be set on a tray of wet pebbles to increase humidity.

Tongue fern (Pyrrosia lingua).  Photo: David J. Stang CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Tongue fern (Pyrrosia lingua). Photo: David J. Stang CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Tongue fern (Pyrrosia lingua). This handsome epiphytic fern hailing from China, Taiwan, and Japan features olive-green, two-inch-wide fronds that can reach 18 inches long. The felty fronds display an undulating margin, with a curious twisting form that sometimes exposes a tan-colored underbelly. These undersides are covered in tiny round sori that, along with stellate hairs and scales, make for an intriguing cinnamon-colored surface. Some liken the leaves’ appearance and texture to a cow’s tongue—thus, the common name. Tongue fern is ideal in containers or used as a focal point in a shady bed.