Elegant, feathery ferns are the perfect accent to a partially to fully-shaded garden bed. Lady ferns are native perennials with lovely lacy light green foliage that stands out amongst the dark-leaved shade plants often growing in the understory of large trees or shrubs. Although these deciduous ferns drop their leaves at the first frost, they reliably return every spring.
These hardy ferns are more tolerant of sunlight and dryer soils than other fern species. They are incredibly easy to grow and slowly spread to form pretty colonies along your garden’s north or east side. Let’s dig into everything you need to know when growing this pretty, low-maintenance native plant.
History and Cultivation
Lady ferns have likely grown in American forests for thousands of years but have recently become popular landscape plants thanks to their shade tolerance and easy maintenance. The beautiful intricate leaves are the perfect backdrop to a shady yard, woodland garden, or partially shaded ornamental flower bed edging.
Best of all, this native plant is highly resilient and has no serious disease or pest issues! After planting, they need little more than supplemental water during drought.
This native deciduous perennial has tall, frilly green foliage and colorful stalks.
This deciduous perennial fern is native to the United States. It grows about 2-3 feet tall and wide, with long frilly foliage. Its bright color ranges from pale to almost neon green, with stalks in green, purple, or red.
The fronds can measure up to 1 foot wide and 3 feet long, with fine-textured lacy leaves in an ascending twice-pinnate arrangement. In the summer, the undersides of the fronds are covered in attractive orange-brown spots called sori, which are clusters of spore sacs the plant uses to reproduce. In the autumn, it adds beautiful yellow, red, and orange foliage to the garden.
Colonies are easy to maintain. They spread slowly via rhizomes and enjoy growing in clumps. This fern is hardy in zones 4-8 but drops its leaves after the first frosts. The best growth happens in shady areas with moist, rich soil. However, it tolerates more direct sun and dryer soil than other fern relatives.
How did it get its name?
It likely earned its name due to its delicate appearance, sometimes associated with femininity.
Lady fern likely got its name from its elegant, delicate appearance associated with femininity. In contrast, a species with the common name male fern (Dryopteris filix-mas) grows much larger and thicker.
Some sources also consider “lady” a reference to the prominent sori (groups of spores) on the undersides of the leaf blades as a feminine trait. In reality, these ferns are homosporous, meaning their spores are hermaphroditic, with both male and female parts. The scientific genus name athyros comes from the Greek word meaning “doorless,” referring to the hinged spore cover that slowly opens in the summer.
Are They Native?
In its native habitat, it prefers loamy, organic-rich soil with ample moisture, but it can tolerate drier conditions if shaded.
Lady fern is native to the entire continental U.S. and Alaska. This graceful plant is indigenous to moist woodlands, meadows, swamps, and streambanks from low to mid-elevation.
While it has dainty foliage, it can grow quite large, up to 3 feet in every direction. It spreads via rhizome and typically grows in large colonies in partial to full shade. In its native woodland habitats, this species thrives in loamy soil rich in organic matter and decaying humus. Like most ferns, it enjoys lots of moisture. However, it tolerates dryer soils in the summer if it remains shaded.
Do They Offer Benefits to The Garden?
Lady ferns are low-maintenance, shade-loving, and native to much of North America.
Growing lady ferns in the home landscape is highly beneficial because they are low-maintenance, shade-loving, and native to all regions of the U.S. This plant does not ask for much yet adds a whimsical forest aesthetic throughout the summer and lots of vibrant color in the autumn.
Any native plant lover can appreciate adding diversity to the garden and supporting local ecosystems. Ferns are indigenous to the U.S. and more well-adapted to temperate climates than exotic tropical ferns commonly grown as houseplants.
For effortless elegance, plant this lowkey fern in border landscapes you rarely visit. They will look beautiful without requiring much water, fertilizer, pruning, or monitoring. The only real maintenance required is a bit of extra irrigation during prolonged drought. You can optionally cut back the foliage in winter for a more manicured look. Otherwise, they grow like wild plants because, well, they are.
The dense root growth binds soil particles together, which is why they’re excellent stabilizers of steep forested slopes. They prevent runoff and loss of soil on steep inclines.
Unlike some aggressively spreading natives, this species only expands its colony a little bit each year. The rhizome-spreading, clump-forming plant will slowly fill in a space with delicate, lacy green fronds.
Lady fern can grow in shady areas beneath trees or on buildings’ north and east sides, where many other plants would suffer. This fern is adapted to the dappled low light of a forest setting.
The frilly fronds are the perfect accent plant for landscapes rich in flowers and shrubs. It grows well in large pots or in the backdrop of any moist shade garden.
Lady ferns are most commonly purchased from a local nursery in quart or gallon pots. You can also propagate by dividing the rhizomes. Seed propagation does not exist because ferns don’t produce seeds.
Interestingly, ancient ferns evolved over 300 million years ago before flowering plants (angiosperms) evolved about 125 million years ago. As one of the oldest groups of plants on Earth, ferns propagated by spores long before seed-producing plants even existed.
Some sources sell spores, but starting from spore is only recommended for advanced growers. Rhizome divisions are much more reliable and straightforward.
Propagating through rhizome division is best with established plants.
The easiest way to propagate is by dividing the rhizomes. Division is best done in the spring with an established colony of plants or a large healthy mother plant.
If you don’t have an established plant, ask a fellow gardener or purchase a potted specimen. Avoid digging up ferns from their wild habitat, as this could disrupt native ecosystems and be illegal in some areas.
To divide a rhizome, use a shovel or garden fork to dig around the perimeter of the fern. Create a circle a few inches beyond the end of the leaves. Leverage the handle of your tool to gently lift the fern from the ground, and use your hands to shake away excess soil so you can see the rhizomes.
A sharp, sanitized knife is perfect for cutting the rhizomes. Alternatively, use your hands to snap chunks off. Be sure that each rhizome division has healthy foliage attached to it. The baby rhizome should be a minimum of 4-6” across. Replant each division in a new pot or garden bed right away. Water it in thoroughly and ensure the leaves remain exposed above the soil level.
Spores can be acquired from specific native plant seed catalogs but are more challenging to grow.
Lady fern spores are available through select native plant seed catalogs, but they are more difficult to establish than the landscape seeds you’re used to. The best time to propagate fern spores is in the spring.
If you’re up for an intriguing propagation project, here’s how to propagate ferns by spores ordered online:
- When spores arrive, plant them as soon as possible.
- Start with the thoroughly moistened sterile peat-moss-based mix.
- Fill a clean, shallow plastic container with a clear lid half full with the mix. Deli containers work great.
- Immediately close the lid after each step.
- Keep everything sterile to avoid mold or algae from taking over.
- Sprinkle the spores lightly over the soil surface like you would season a dish with salt.
- Mist with water and quickly put the lid back on.
- Place the container in a warm location under bright lights or indirect sunlight.
- Wait 2-3 weeks for germination. Do not open the container unless you need to mist the soil.
- When spores germinate, it looks like a green coating over the peat mix.
- After 4-6 weeks, you will see little fern fronds.
- Water regularly, but don’t overwater, or they may rot.
- When the baby ferns reach about 1” tall, separate and transplant to a potting soil.
- Move into the garden in late summer or early fall.
Collecting Your Own Spores
You can collect spores from established plants by gathering them from the orange-brown sori on fern leaves.
Optionally, it’s possible to collect spores from existing plants. Spores are clustered in orangish-brown spots called sori on the undersides of fern leaves throughout the summer months. An established fern will naturally drop spores in the area, but the spores do not always germinate into full-grown plants.
To collect and propagate spores yourself:
- Pick a frond in late May through October and layer it between two white sheets of paper.
- Wait 24 hours for the spores to drop on the paper.
- Dropped spores will match the pattern of the leaf.
- Gently tilt the paper and tap it to remove chaff (excess plant material).
- Prepare a shallow container with a clear lid. Fill with a sterilized peat moss mix.
- Dust the spores from the paper onto the mix, mist it, and put the lid on.
- Place the container under grow lights for 14 hours a day. Don’t put it in direct sunlight.
- In a few weeks, a green haze should appear on top. If not, add more mist and wait.
- Sporelings should appear in 3-5 weeks.
- Transplant the clumps into a blend of potting soil and vermiculite in a mini greenhouse.
- When they are 4-6” tall, transplant outdoors.
The easiest option is to purchase an established plant from a garden store or native plant nursery. The best time to plant is in late spring after the risk of frost has passed. The transplanting process is simple and similar to planting any shrub or seedling.
How to Transplant
Dig a hole, place the fern inside at the same level as in the pot, backfill, and water well.
Prepare a partially to fully shaded area with moist, loamy, well-drained soil. Amend poor soils with peat moss, coniferous needles, and compost. Dig a hole twice as wide as the root ball but the same depth.
Carefully remove the fern from the container and place it in the hole. Backfill with soil, ensuring all roots are covered and the soil level is the same as in the pot. Water thoroughly.
Bare Root Ferns
Soak bare root plants for at least 2 hours to reduce the likelihood of transplant shock.
If you purchase a bare root plant, soak the roots for at least 2 hours before planting. Dehydrated roots may have trouble establishing and could cause major transplant shock.
When positioning the plant, ensure the crown is about ½” below the soil surface and all leaves are above ground. Backfill and water generously.
Moving a Fern
If transplanting a fern from one area of the garden to another, dig up the entire clump and retain as much soil as possible. Lift the clump from the bottom of the roots to avoid pulling on the fronds.
Transport it in a wheelbarrow to your new area or container and plant it right away. Avoid exposing the roots to direct sunlight. When backfilling, retain the same soil level and avoid burying any leaves.
Space at least 2 feet apart for optimal growth, allowing them to naturally form a colony.
Lady ferns do best when spaced at least 2 feet apart. They will naturally fill in spaces and form a verdant colony over time.
Avoid spacing too close together; the ferns may become stressed, yellow, and prone to diseases like powdery mildew. Imagine and emulate the natural spacing of ferns in the forest.
How to Grow
Ferns are extremely easy to grow and beginner-friendly. Once you plant them in the right location with ideal conditions, they require little more than occasional water during dry spells.
This species thrives in partial to full shade as they have adapted to receiving filtered sunlight.
Lady ferns thrive in partial shade to dappled or almost full shade. The large fronds of these ancient plants are accustomed to soaking up sprinklings of sunlight through the tree canopy.
They will get scorched if placed in intense direct sunlight, but they tolerate more sunshine than other fern species. If you need to plant beneath a younger tree or a west-facing exposure, they will do fine so long as they are not exposed to aggressive afternoon light.
When choosing your planting site, prioritize areas with gentle, indirect light under the canopy of tall trees or near the edges of your home or garden shed. These ferns are prized by landscapers for their ability to look beautiful along the north sides of buildings where many other plants struggle.
These ferns need consistent moisture but not soggy soil.
Consistent moisture is a must for these frilly ladies. They should always be damp but never soggy or saturated. They grow wild near streambanks and moist woodlands, so they don’t do well with drought. Adequate moisture is crucial during dry periods, when you may need to add supplemental irrigation.
In climates like the Northeast or Northwest, they will do just fine without supplemental water as long as they are planted in a partially shaded area. Generally, the brighter the area, the more water the ferns need. Mulching with deciduous leaves or pine needles is perfect for retaining soil moisture and regulating the root zone temperature in areas with warmer, drier summers.
Ferns prefer well-drained, acidic soil rich in organic matter but may tolerate clay soil.
The native forest environment of ferns is characterized by well-drained, acidic soil with a rich layer of humus. Also known as the O layer or organic layer, the surface soil layer of most forests is dense with organic matter from fallen leaves, coniferous needles, and decaying plant materials. But just like that upper soil profile, the lower soil profile reflects years of organic matter decaying into the soil; the high humus levels provide ideal nutrients for your ferns to thrive.
While they will tolerate clay soils, lady ferns prefer richer soil amended with compost or shredded bark. A pH from 4.5 to 6.5 is ideal. Add compost, peat moss, or leaf mold if your soil is more alkaline.
Climate and Temperature
These ferns are cold hardy in zones 3-8.
As an indigenous plant to nearly every temperate region in the U.S., lady ferns are extremely cold-hardy. They are perennial in zones 3 through 8. However, these ferns are deciduous and will drop their leaves after the season’s first hard frost.
This rugged fern will reliably regrow every spring with cute little fiddleheads that unfurl into large fronds. It especially thrives in humid, moist climates. If you live in a drier zone, provide it with more shade and moisture.
They don’t require fertilizer but benefit from compost and leaf mulch.
There is no need to fertilize, but they appreciate an abundance of compost and leaf mulch. Organic matter provides all the microbial activity and nutrients these plants need. Avoid synthetic quick-release fertilizers, which can harm the plant and lead to fertilizer burn.
Lady ferns need minimal maintenance aside from consistent moisture.
As long as your ferns are consistently moist, they don’t need any maintenance. Some gardeners prefer to cut back the dead leaves after the first fall frost for a more manicured landscape. However, leaving the fallen fronds or chopping them up in place can provide another great source of decomposing organic matter.
I prefer letting the ferns move their natural life cycles as they would in the forest! In other words, plant them, water them, and let them do their thing!
While common lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) is the most common species, there are two other species of native lady ferns in the genus. Plant breeders have also developed several attractive cultivars for landscape use.
Southern Lady Fern (A. asplenioides)
Ideal for zones 6-8, this species is native to warmer regions.
If you live in zones 6 through 8, this is the lady fern for you! This 2-3 foot fern has the same lacy, broad fronds as the common species but is native to warmer regions of southern, central, and eastern USA.
Its wild range includes Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and up the east coast through the Carolinas to New England. Southern lady fern produces extra beautiful green fiddleheads in spring but requires extra moisture in hot southern areas.
Northern Lady Fern (A. angustum)
The northern lady fern is more sun-tolerant and suitable for zones 2-9.
This species has more narrow fronds than the Southern and common species. It tolerates more open, sunny conditions and grows slightly shorter. Hardy in zones 2-9, northern lady fern especially thrives in the Colorado, the Dakotas, the Northeast, and the Midwestern states. It has a distinctively vase-shaped growth form.
The key to success with this species is avoiding trampling. This variety has shallow rhizomes that are particularly vulnerable to damage from foot traffic.
‘Lady in Red’ (A. filix-femina ‘Lady in Red’)
This commonly available cultivar is a smaller fern with stunning burgundy-red stripes on its light green fronds.
This cultivar is commonly found in nurseries and puts on the most colorful autumn show. It is a smaller variety that only reaches 18-30” tall and displays gorgeous burgundy-red stripes laced through the light green fronds.
Dwarf Lady Fern (A. filix-femina ‘Minutissiumum’)
Choose this compact, dainty cultivar for growing in pots.
If you want a potted fern, this is the variety for you! This domesticated cultivar of the common species is bred for particularly dainty, compact growth.
It can grow in zones 5-10 and reaches 6-12” tall at maturity. It spreads about 12-15,” so it still needs at least a 5-gallon pot and only one plant per container.
What Looks Good With Lady Ferns?
Many gardeners struggle with designing shady landscapes. Plant ferns with shade-tolerant perennials that enjoy similar soil and moisture conditions.
Consider those with complementary growth habits, like shrubs that can rise up behind the ferns or low-growing perennials to decorate the foreground of a bed. When designing a landscape with ferns, I imagine a gradual slope of short plants to tall trees with ferns in the middle row of growth.
Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus)
This medium-sized perennial thrives in partial shade and features white feathery plumes of flowers.
This medium-sized perennial enjoys partial shade and rich soil, just like lady ferns. The gorgeous feathery plumes of white flowers add exciting texture in the late spring and early summer. Goatsbeard’s dark green foliage is also a nice contrast behind the bright green fern fronds.
Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima)
This native plant attracts pollinators with white blossoms in late summer.
Snakeroot grows in many of the same wild woodland habitats as lady fern. It grows 2-4 tall in moist, partially shaded areas and forms rhizomatous colonies. The gorgeous white blossoms appear in late summer and are great for native bees, moths, and butterflies.
This species is poisonous to animals and pets. It infamously killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother when she drank milk from a cow who ate snakeroot. Be sure to plant it where kids and dogs cannot access it.
Coral Bells (Heuchera spp.)
Coral bells perform best in zones 3-9 but need some space to spread.
This native perennial enjoys shady areas in zones 3-9. It needs at least 2 feet of space to reach its full width. The gorgeous gold, burgundy, or green foliage perfectly contrasts ferns, especially in the autumn.
Coral bells are perfect for growing with lady ferns as erosion control on steep slopes. In colder climates, this species prefers a little more sun.
Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense L.)
Wild ginger is a low-growing, evergreen groundcover that thrives in woodland shade.
Another common low-growing native, wild ginger, is often found creeping along as groundcover in wild fern-filled forests. This evergreen has stunning dark bluish-green leaves patterned with silver or gray veins. The dense root systems thrive in woodland shade and provide added moisture retention and erosion control under the canopy of ferns, shrubs, and trees.
Shade-Loving Hydrangeas (Hydrangea spp.)
Wild hydrangeas thrive in the same forested, shady conditions as ferns.
A blooming shade-tolerant hydrangea surrounded by elegant ferns is quite a sight to see! Wild hydrangeas grow in the same shady forested areas as ferns, savoring the acidic soil and abundant moisture. ‘Blue Enchantress’ and ‘Miss Saori’ are lovely options for planting beneath large trees.
Pests and Diseases
You don’t often see ferns infested with insects in the wild. This plant is remarkably resilient and only occasionally falls victim to a fungal infection.
Lady fern’s love of humid environments can sometimes lead to fungal issues like powdery mildew.
The fern’s love of humidity naturally can attract moisture-loving fungal pathogens. Powdery mildew looks like a dusting of flour or white powder on the leaves. It can cause frond dieback and may spread to other nearby plants.
The best prevention is spacing your ferns wider apart for airflow. In the rare case of an extreme infection, prune away affected fronds and throw them in the trash, then apply a diluted neem solution to the remaining foliage.
This species is widely used as an ornamental or landscaping plant.
Today, these plants are used primarily as landscaping plants in woodland gardens, native plantings, cottage gardens, and yard edges. The juicy, fresh spring fiddleheads are sometimes foraged for culinary use but are less desirable due to a slightly bitter flavor.
If you have a shady area that needs a splash of vibrant green and frilly texture, lady ferns are the perfect low-maintenance native. As long as they have plenty of organic matter, slightly acidic soil, and consistent moisture, these ferns will grow verdant, lacey foliage for years to come. Plant them with wild ginger and shade-loving hydrangeas for a gorgeous woodland vibe.