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"Possibility and promise greet me each day as I walk out into my garden. My vigor is renewed when I breathe in the earthiness and feel the dirt between my fingers. My garden is a peaceful spot to refresh my soul." Meems

Welcome to my Central Florida Garden Blog where we garden combining Florida natives, Florida-Friendly plants, and tropicals.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Good Fern, Bad Fern

Yanking out green leafy ferns from the roots to get rid of them is not a task a gardener relishes. So why would we do it? There are good ferns and bad ferns. In Florida there is ONE BAD variety in particular that is readily seen in so many gardens and even sold in garden centers.

But let's have a look at the GOOD ferns growing at Hoe and Shovel first. Some are native and others are just fabulous Florida-Friendly varieties.

A treaured tree fern growing in the back gardens just off the central pathway is the Australian tree fern. Yes, TREE fern. In the best conditions these wondrous beauties can grow 12-15' tall. My single specimen above is only 4-5' tall.

So lovely and stately they become; usually noticed thriving underneath the protective canopy of mature, taller trees as is the case in my back gardens.

Artillery fern, Pilea microphyllia (non-native) is a great one for Florida. The yellow-green hue lights up the shady garden and is useful as a trailing container plant. In this one (above) it contrasts perfectly in texture, form, and color; emphasizing the deep shades of red and forest green of the Philodendron 'Rojo Congo'. I've seen artillery fern utilized as a hardy ground cover as well.

This is a sterile version of artillery. This is not the same as the invasive one that hitch hikes along with so many pots from garden centers.

Edit update: Since the original writing of this article I've come to realize the fern I've profiled here is actually Southern Shield Fern (Thelypteris kunthii). I love that I'm always learning. The more I saw this lovely Florida native pop up on its own around my garden, I dug a little deeper into its attributes. Autumn Fern is often mistaken for Southern Shield. It is also a lovely option, but I don't have any in my garden. 

Autumn fern, Dryopteris erythrosora (non-native) is one of those under-utilized ferns suitable for shady gardens in the coastal states. Although it is well-behaved and non-aggressive I've never had to purchase one. Because over the years it has shown up in many places throughout my garden. In almost every instance it finds an appropriate condition to get its start all on its own so I just let them flourish where they land. In some cases I uproot and relocate them to consolidate for design purposes.

Giant Leather Fern, Acrostichum danaeifolium (Florida native), is a new one to me this past spring. Placing it in a cobalt blue glazed container between the two black adirondacks in the circle garden it has grown quite well in its partially sunny (shade in the morning/filtered sun in afternoon) home. Just for fun there are some more planted in the ground (that can't be seen in this photo)
behind the chairs.

They'll freeze back in extreme frost but come back quickly with the earth warms up.

These giants are often used along the edges of waterways even in brackish waters. My hope is for them to thrive as a perennial in the unsoggy but moist conditions I've offered. I'm in love with their giant status that makes them a stand out.

In a make believe world where I might be forced to choose JUST ONE fern for the shady and partially shady parts of my garden it would unquestionably be the quintessential evergreen Holly fern, Cyrtomium falcatum. This one works like a horse in every season. Blend several of them at a time with gingers, perennials, native oakleaf hydrangea, grasses, bromeliads, even coleus and caladiums. You name it.

Holly fern is a champion of the winter garden charging through the cold unscathed and in the summer heat and drought it shows no signs of despair. A slow grower with its final destination arriving at a healthy 2-3 feet high and at least that wide. I dig up an entire plant in spring, cut it in half with a sharp shovel, put one back where I dug it up and plant the other half in a choice spot to spread the love gradually around the garden.

It is not at all fragile or dainty in appearance. Instead it is robust with its dark, glossy, holly-like leaves these foundational plants add lushness to the understory of the shade garden. Did I mention they are my favorite fern specimen for ground cover providing low maintenance, long lasting, reliable foliage in my garden! Just thought I'd mention that Holly fern is my all-time recommendable Florida-Friendly fern of choice. :=)

And oh, the lovely and mystical Resurrection Fern, Polypodium polypodioides. This is the native epiphyte that attaches itself to trunks of trees and only springs to life after a good rain shower.

Finally this week the tiny fronds have unfurled from their dry, curled-up, lifeless appearance with much needed rain adequately falling. Zero care is required for this Florida native. And I do adore the woodsy, naturalistic feel they lend to the garden.

Giant Sword Fern (Nephrolepsis biserrata) also commonly called Macho Fern IS a Florida native. Macho fern makes a striking contribution to container plants and is also recommended for use as a ground cover. It will spread fairly rapidly but is not considered invasive. I've no need for a fern to cover ground so I'm reining in the spread of it in containers. But if you want an easy care understory that fills in quickly with an exotic feel Macho fern is a good choice.

Macho fern is not to be confused with the non-native imposter of the smaller variety, Tuberous sword fern(Nephrolepis cordifolia) or Asian sword fern (Nephrolepis multiflora). Both are on the Florida Exotic Pest Council's (FLEPPC) Category 1 List of Florida's Most Invasive Species.

BAD FERN! I don't fully remember how this problem began. But I do know it is one that has been neglected for a couple of years and by the end of spring I had procrastinated long enough. The "island" bed on the north side of the driveway was being overrun with Tuberous sword fern(Nephrolepis cordifolia). [BEFORE photo above].

It only took me about 2 hours to pull it out by the roots for removal before it spread around to other parts of the garden. [AFTER photo above].

Do you want to know how to discern whether the sword fern you are growing is the invasive variety?

Here's a document with reliable information:

Which fern growing in your garden is the one you wouldn't want to be without?


  1. You have such a collection of beautiful ferns! All so lush, on my dry coral island I'll be lucky to get a sword fern to even live!

  2. Oh yes! I remember one of my gardens when I lived in Jacksonville being overrun with that tuberous sword fern. I have only just re-discovered a love for ferns, and have a little shady area for them. I have maidenhair growing in a pot, and I think that is my favorite with its light airy texture.

  3. Nicole,
    Thank you. So... NOT invasive where you are. :-)

    I didn't realize you lived in Jacksonville once upon a time!!! I DO have one small maidenhair in a container and I do LOVE it. I completely forgot to include it in this 'fern' grouping. So lovely... the dark stems and airy texture of the leaves. They prefer a lot of moisture so I keep it near the hose in the shade.

  4. I think my favorite,after the Holly Fern,is the native Cinammon Fern.It grows in sun or shade.Dies back in the winter,but returns in the spring.Grows talls,fills in,stays where it should,and is a Florida native.Love it!Transplants very if you want some,come and get it.

  5. I have holly ferns and they are indeed very tough, though I think I have one planted in an area where it does not get quite as much shade as it would prefer. Just recently I added cinnamon ferns in a large container under an elm tree. After a rocky start in their new digs, they now are doing beautifully and growing very quickly. I see more pots in my future!

  6. Chris,
    How do you keep the cinnamon fern moist enough? Is it in your boggy area because I don't have one of those... and sometimes I wish I did. I definitely have had my eye on them in the past but concerned I might not have the right conditions for it. I'd love to "come get one" and give it a try.

    I have WAY too many container pots but they are really nice way to fit it combinations you might not otherwise add to your garden or for creating a focal point and elevating some of our favorites.

  7. You have an impressive collection of ferns! I also have a tree fern and some holly ferns. I might need to do a post on my various ferns although most of mine aren't hardy here and don't have a chance of becoming invasive which I suppose has its good points although it's a pain in the winter. Your ferns look much better than mine!

  8. Great blog! When I read the title, I thought the bad guy was going to be asparagus fern, another horrible invasive. I always shake my head when I see it in little 4" pots for sale right next to the foxtail fern, which is a good guy. Most folks don't know the difference because they look so similar. Such a terror for future gardens and gardeners.

    Good job, Meems. Excellent blog.

    Jacksonville, FL

  9. NotSoAngry...
    There are many more ferns in Florida than what I have. I tend to repeat the use of what works well until I get enamored with a new variety then I make room for it. Thank you for your visit.

    I battled asparagus fern here for years and it still crops up here and there. I pull it out as I see it because I know how quickly it takes over. I DO love my foxtail fern but didn't include it in this post since it isn't a TRUE fern. They work very well in containers mixed with other plants that don't mind drying out between waterings. I do frown when I see either sword fern or asparagus for sale but it is common to see... sadly.

  10. I love the holly ferns too; but, my most fervent feelings are concerning a fern I would NEVER want in my garden and that is the asparagus is almost impossible to get rid of as you mentioned and yet it is in all the garden centers...

    Now I am gardening in NC, I don't have to worry about that; but, they have truly amazing ferns here that grow in the woods in beautiful clumps down by the stream. Amazing they can manage on their own through heat and even snow. Nature is wonderful!

  11. Great informational post! I will come back to this one whenever I consider to buy another fern. I recently bought artillery fern without knowing what it was. I plant it in a sunny location in front of my Belinda's dream rose, and surprisingly it is doing very well. I saw you and Floridagirl all grow this in partial shade area. I guess it can tolerate different range of light.

    I really love that Australia tree Fern. I need to find a location for it. I recently saw it in my favorite nursery, although it is a little pricey.

    Now I need to go to your other post to find out if the other fern I have is "bad" fern or not.

  12. I tucked some maidenhair ferns (Adiantum spp) into 2 hanging pots last summer and they are still doing very well. I like their delicate fronds. They managed to survive the winter cold, but are under the umbrella on an oak tree which helped. I have other ferns in the ground that came in on their own. I need to get busy determining which is which. Thanks for your photos and help.

  13. I have some artillery ferns in pots and just put some in the ground, but were told they can take over. So I'm keeping a watch over them here in St. Pete.

  14. Patricia,
    I hope you are enjoying every minute of your gardening in NC. A beautiful place to garden and some truly beautiful ferns live in the woodlands and mountains.

    Interesting fact about the artillery fern living in more sunny conditions, too. I will have to experiment with moving some to see how that works here. Australian Tree Ferns can be pricey but there is a nursery (the one I mentioned in this post for purchasing autumn ferns) who sells them very reasonably.

    The sword ferns here were under control at one time but there is so much of it in the neighborhood that the spores travel and get started and spread quickly. It is best to keep them pulled rather than let them get so messy like I had done. Maidenhair is a beautiful specimen. I LOVE mine, too.

    It's interesting that sometimes a "take over" is what we want. And if it was warranted for a large area of ground cover artillery fern would make a very good choice.

  15. I actually planted that sword fern at my last house - and then I UNplanted it. Like you, I can't believe they sell it. Thank you hugely for mentioning the Holly Fern, Meems. I had never heard of it and will definitely be getting some since it is everything I want - especially freeze-hardy. I've always admired the Australian Tree Ferns. They're so statuesque and just plain beautiful. Thanks for a great post.

  16. Gorgeous ferns! I love your blog by the way!

  17. Sherry,
    I think I planted some in the late 80's here. Pulled it all out eventually but it returns because neighbors have it planted. Spores!

    You might want to do some further checking on the holly fern in your area. You all get so much colder than we do and I can't testify as to *how* cold hardy it is except for our own 27 degree temps a couple of winters ago... of which it survived beautifully. That was when I decided to put lots more of it in many more gardens. :-)

    Thank you. I'm happy you like the ferns and appreciate your visit.

  18. These are beautiful fern gardens! I am amazed at the lushness of all the foliage. Maybe your Florida climate is more suitable to them than ours. We have lots of ferns too but not as profusely growing. Yours looks like a biodiversity garden and i love that trunk full of them. I can very well relate to your description of your conditions and i hate it here with our 'hot-humid' type!

  19. By the way you forgot to include the birds' nest fern or Asplenium nidus. And do you know that young fern fronds, i just forgot which one, is used as vegetable salad here? It is delicious, trust me. However, it is harvested only from forests with higher elevation, and i dont know its ID.

  20. Andrea,
    You are SO right. I completely forgot about the birds nest fern which I adore greatly. I'll have to do its own post to make up to it. :-)

  21. Hi Meem,

    Where does Fern 'Delilah' (Nephrolepsis exaltata) fall? Is it a good fern or a bad fern? I just got one off of a clearance rack and really bought it more for the hanging basket than the plant. Should I toss it before it unpacks its suitcases?!

    Jacksonville, Florida

  22. The link is broken to the before and after for discerning ferns. Do you mind emailing me the link?

    Many thanks, Ali

  23. I saw a fern at a garden center today. It's labeled Blue Star Fern. I took a pic and compared it online - looks like it's Phlebodium aureum. Is it a good fern for a shady area in north Hillsborough County? How large would I expect it to get? Thanks for any help!

  24. Diane,
    Blue Star Fern is a really nice addition to a Central FL garden. I only put some in last spring so I can't tell you how large they will get. Mine are not growing fast though if that helps. They are happy in partial shade.

  25. I've just discovered your website yesterday and can't stop reading and digging around! You have exactly the look I'm working toward... but I'm years and years away from achieving it.
    I'm in Central Florida, too... in Titusville. So you can bet I'll be trying to copy some of your photos in my landscape. (I have 3/4 acre to work with and have only just gotten started)
    Bad fern. *Sigh* I have TONS of it. The previous owners created a berm with it around two Live Oaks. It gets fuller and taller every year, but hasn't traveled or spread. (I looked it up and it's definitely the bad one) Bummer.
    Artillery Fern showed up in my yard two years ago out of the blue. I kept yanking it out thinking it was a "ferny weed." Once I saw how well it functions as a ground cover, I just left it. I love it!

  26. I've just discovered your website yesterday and can't stop reading and digging around! You have exactly the look I'm working toward... but I'm years and years away from achieving it.
    I'm in Central Florida, too... in Titusville. So you can bet I'll be trying to copy some of your photos in my landscape. (I have 3/4 acre to work with and have only just gotten started)
    Bad fern. *Sigh* I have TONS of it. The previous owners created a berm with it around two Live Oaks. It gets fuller and taller every year, but hasn't traveled or spread. (I looked it up and it's definitely the bad one) Bummer.
    Artillery Fern showed up in my yard two years ago out of the blue. I kept yanking it out thinking it was a "ferny weed." Once I saw how well it functions as a ground cover, I just left it. I love it!

  27. I found your website when I googled Autumn and Holly Fern.
    After 20 years in my house, I decided to put in some plants on the north side of my house. SInce it is in the shade of the house, I went to the local nursery (Trad's and Ace Hardware) to ask what I could plant there.

    The lady at Ace Hardware told me to stay away from the asparagus fern as it was so invasive. I went with the recommendation from Trad's and Ace Hardware and got the autumn and holly ferns.

    I look forward to reading more on your website.

    Jacksonville, FL

  28. Enjoyed reading your blog. I thought artillery fern was not a true fern. Anyway, I've had a lot of problems with it being invasive. Is it OK to plant Macho fern near Maidenhair fern ? Ha ha! Have you had any luck with hosts?

  29. Is there something you can recommend to spray the sword fern with? We have too large of an area where it has become invasive to hand pull it due to physical limitations.

    I don't want to spend large amounts of money on something that does not work.

    1. Hello Anonymous,
      I recently had a professional landscape company with a backhoe come clean out a ginormous area in my new garden that was filled with sword fern and grape vine. It was so thick it would have taken me into the next century to pull it by hand although we tried to get started on it. Fail. You can use a chemical weed killer with Glysophate in it if you choose.

  30. The landscapers in our development have been trimming the Macho ferns with electric hedge trimmers. the leaflets on the fronds whose tips were removed turn yellow, then brown and fall off, leaving sharp dry brown sticks. If too many of the fronds are cut, the entire clump goes into decline, so be advised not to trim the ferns.


Have a blessed day,

September 2010

Back Garden: October 2010

Louise Philippe: Antique Rose

Tropical Pathway