Four Ferns for Dry Places

When gardeners are looking for native plants for dry shade, ferns are not often the first type of plant to come to mind.

It is true that many species of ferns prefer consistent moisture, yet there are ferns that are well-adapted to drier conditions. Ferns are generally unpalatable to herbivores and are deer resistant, yet provide excellent habitat for turtles, amphibians, and small mammals.

Here are four species of native ferns that can tolerate drier conditions.

While these four Maryland native plants will benefit from exposure to rain when it comes, even in serious drought conditions these plants can pull through by conserving water. If they go dormant, you can expect them to rebound when wetter times return.

Athyrium filix-femina (lady fern)

lady fern

Lady ferns are vigorous growers and will fill their spot in the garden by slowly spreading out rhizomes.  They can reach 2-3′ in height, and the density of an established grouping will help the soil retain moisture and help resist the spread of invasive plants. The ‘Lady in Red’ cultivar adds a dramatic visual element of vivid red stems. Because the fronds emerge later in Spring, lady fern is also a great companion plant to ephemerals like Virginia bluebells that start to fade out when lady fern is just starting to make an appearance.

Dryopteris marginalis (eastern wood fern)

Marginal Wood FernEven more drought-tolerant than lady fern, eastern wood fern is a lovely addition to the native plant garden. Wood ferns form tidy clumps, so they can be used in places where a more formal design is needed or where you are interplanting with other perennials. They are one of the shorter ferns, with a height of 12-18 inches.  

Dennstaedtia punctilobula (hayscented fern)

Pinchot Trail (Revisited) (2)

Hayscented fern is a carefree addition to larger gardens, where its ability to spread is welcomed.  It is especially nice along pathways since it truly does have a pleasant scent when brushed. Henry David Thoreau called it “the sweet fragrance of decay!”


Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas fern)

Christmas fern

Another shorter fern, Christmas fern is not showy but presents a very tidy appearance in the garden.  Another bonus is that the fronds are evergreen and generally still look very attractive into the winter months.  As a result, this plant is often used as a holiday decoration. It prefers acidic or neutral soils, but is surprisingly adaptable.

All four of these ferns will need consistent moisture until they are established, but once they settle in they are tougher than many gardeners give them credit for.

Herring Run Nursery offers all of these native ferns, and any others, when they are available.

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