Native Ferns and How They Benefit the Environment

Ferns are widespread, and there are more than twelve thousand species of fern worldwide. Spanning from temperate to tropical areas. In the eastern United States, native ferns often form a large part of the natural landscape, especially in shady woodlands.
Native Ferns and How They Benefit the Environment

The Advantages of Native Ferns

Ferns are widespread, and there are more than twelve thousand species of fern worldwide. Spanning from temperate to tropical areas. In the eastern United States, native ferns often form a large part of the natural landscape, especially in shady woodlands. Their airy, delicate shapes with serrated leaves are instantly recognizable. Hunting for “fiddleheads” (a word for ferns that have not opened fully yet) is a favorite pastime of foragers who enjoy gathering immature ostrich ferns as they emerge in spring to cook various dishes. Some restaurants even add fiddleheads to their spring menus as a seasonal delicacy!

How to create a woodland fern garden (in a small yard) — FERNS & FEATHERS


Ferns For Health and Asthetics

But though some ferns are delicious and nutritious, we also know planting ferns are a great way to boost the health of the soil in your garden. Adding ferns to your garden is not only a good design choice but one that benefits the health of your soil. Ferns help with soil stabilization because they will grow in conditions many plants won’t grow in (such as heavy clay soils or acidic soils). This characteristic also makes ferns helpful in preventing soil erosion, as well as their ability to grow on slopes and in between rocks. Ferns form thick rhizomes or roots that form a matted area that helps retain soil.

Fern Benefits In The Environment

Native ferns also have the helpful ability to pull toxic materials from the soil, including heavy metals and arsenic. The process whereby ferns remove pollutants from the soil is known as phytoremediation. They also remove airborne pollutants, including toluene, formaldehyde, and xylene, which can cause various adverse health impacts, including headaches, breathing problems, and even some forms of cancer.

Types Of Fferns

Most native ferns are deciduous and do not produce pollen or nectar, though sometimes the fronds are eaten by various wildlife. They also provide microhabitats for various insects and other creatures that live in woodland settings and provide shade and shelter for ground-feeding birds, turtles, and frogs. They will usually spread throughout a shady area over time. Ferns go dormant naturally and don’t need special pruning or deadheading, though you may wish to remove the leaves once they turn brown in late autumn or parched weather. Below are a few native ferns that will provide years of beauty and many environmental benefits for your garden.


Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) The classic fiddlehead fern! These large, cultivated plants can grow up to 6 feet tall. Their whole, bushy leaves have a feathery appearance, similar to ostrich feathers, but their size more likely inspires their name: like ostriches, they’re a giant of their kind. They do best in moist and fertile soil with organic matter (such as in thick forest underbrush with decaying plant matter). These ferns have large rhizomes and will naturalize quickly in a shady setting, so give them some room. Their size and tendency to spread make them an essential fern for wildlife habitat and shelter, and they are commonly seen growing throughout forests in the Northeast.


Maiden Hair Fern (Adiantum pedatum) This is a more miniature deciduous fern that grows between 12-18 inches tall. The stems are relatively thin, and the fiddleheads are reddish. This fern does well in moist, rich, loamy soil. This one is popular with home gardeners for its smaller size, allowing for garden design flexibility.


Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) This deciduous fern usually grows to between 2 and 3 feet tall, but in ideal conditions, may grow as tall as 5 feet. The Royal Fern likes rich, acidic soil that is relatively moist. It has large and well-separated leaves, giving them a sculptural appearance. This large fern does well alongside ponds, swamps, or other moist, boggy areas. Give it plenty of space, and it will spread nicely.


Leatherwood Fern (Dryopteris marginalis) This evergreen fern has dark green leaves and usually grows to about 2 feet tall. Its fronds are profoundly cut and distinctive, with delicate serrated leaves. The Leatherwood Fern does best in moist, rich soil with good drainage. It’s very hardy and, unlike many other native ferns, does not spread quickly or invasively in the garden.


This fern also likes a bit of protection from the wind. Cinnamon Fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) Named for its spicy fragrance as it matures, this large fern also has edible fiddleheads. Growing up to 3 feet tall, the cinnamon prefers a moist, boggy environment and is often seen growing alongside swampy ground in woodland areas and meadows on the outskirts of forests. The soft fronds are a nutritious food source for some wildlife, including wild turkeys and ruffed grouse.


Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) Growing 1 to 3 feet tall, these evergreen ferns have a thick, leathery appearance to their bright green leaves. Their growth habit makes them striking, as they have a full, upright fountain shape. These ferns are more adaptable to soil conditions than others and tolerate somewhat dry soil. They are also sometimes grown as houseplants and will grow beautifully in a container in a shady spot.


New York Fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis) The New York fern is another fern that is adaptable to different soil conditions and will thrive in dry or moist soils. This attractive fern is on the shorter side, growing from 12-24 inches tall, and with delicate, tiny leaves that give it an airy look in the garden. The fronds are narrow at the base and tip and broader in the middle, giving them an unusual, curved shape.


This fern provides food for the caterpillars of two specific moths: the Pink-Shaded Fern Moth and the Closebanded Yellowhorn Moth. Despite not producing flowers, this fern still provides food for what will eventually become pollinators!