‘I DON’T KNOW how you tell these ferns apart,” people have been saying to Judith Jones of Fancy Fronds Nursery for as long as she can remember. FYI: Ferns do not all look alike, at least not once you’re clued in to how to look with a more practiced eye. It’s all about the details with these ancient and diverse plants.
Few people have a more practiced eye about ferns than Judith, a.k.a. The Fern Madame, who joined me from Fancy Fronds in the State of Washington to introduce us to some distinctive favorites from among her vast collection: ferns with pink-to-bronze early color, with glossy foliage, with forked, divisifine-textured cresting (like the crested uniform wood fern, above).
Read along as you listen to the March 5, 2018 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
fern q&a with fancy fronds’ judith jones
Q. I’ve known about you and your catalog and your expertise for such a long time, so it’s a real pleasure to finally get acquainted a little better. For context, let’s start with where you are located and what’s the climate like there? Let us know what the nursery is like—it’s a family business, yes? A small family business?
A. Correct, correct. My son and his partner joined me, and I moved to this property in 1995, I am based, now, northeast of Seattle, I’m at the base of the Cascade Mountains on the Skykomish River, which is a snow-fed river with salmon in it and lots of fishermen. I’ve been a nursery since 1977, and done mail-order since 1982. [The scenery in Judith’s region, below; nursery greenhouses above.]
Q. Wow. Now, is it true that you really call your property, where your home and your nursery are situated, the Fronderosa? [Laughter.]
A. Oh, yes, you should have heard the groans from my children and it was like, “You know, I’m the one living here, you people go away.” However, my son has come back, luckily for me, and he is highly versed in ferns. But what is more appropriate than a property full of Sitka spruce, beautiful tall trees, and a river, and a log house, and ferns? [Laughter.]
Q. You have a lot of rain, I think, there, so some ferns must be very happy with you. How much rainfall do you have per year?
A. Well, 100 inches isn’t always ideal with all ferns, and a lot of cloud cover, and living very close to—in a very narrow valley—very close to a mountain range, right across the river. In the winter, if there is sun, it only comes out from 12 to 2.
Q. So there on the Fronderosa, besides Pa and Hoss and Little Joe, who I assume are employed there, how big is the minion work in the nursery? [Above, plants unloaded after an appearance at the recent Northwest Flower and Garden Show.]
A. [Laughter.] The minion working the nursery are myself, my son, and his partner, Joshua, and I’m quite lucky because the boys come with talents that just … you know, fixing plumbing, electrical, putting skins on greenhouses, potting…
Q. Websites? [Laughter.]
A. Yes, websites, oh exactly, thank you, yes. My son does that one, too. Without them, I think I would be way behind. And actually they both love to garden, so that means that they’re people that will dig holes. Not that we always agree what goes in the holes…
Q. Yes, that’s O.K., that’s healthy.
A. … it’s all compromise.
Q. Well, you know, they say that the best situation for families, whether spouses or family members gardening together, is separate beds, that’s what they say, so.
A. Yes, well, we garden together, pretty much, but they have their own greenhouses, mainly I get all the big ones. [Laughter.]
Q. As long as I can recall, Fancy Fronds has really been there for fern lovers as a resource. How many different types of ferns are in the collection and how many do you sell at this point?
A. I probably sell about 100 or more, not all are listed on the website, but the collection is about 1,000 taxa, which means that you get to include cultivars. Now I discount Athyrium niponicum or Japanese painted cultivars, because I think they’re redundant, so that probably puts me neck-and-neck with Tony, who does count them.
Q. Tony, you mean Tony Avent?
A. Tony Avent, yes…
Q. Of Plant Delights.
A. …who is a wonderful friend, and very generous at sharing, so, and he has beautiful plants, by the way, as well as ferns.
Q. A thousand taxa and of that you sell around 100 of them?
A. Yes, 100, maybe the catalog will go up and down, sometimes there might be 50, sometimes there might be 80, it depends on the stock and what I’m doing. Worldwide ferns in the tropics account for about 8,000 of the 12,000 or more species; 15 percent are from temperate or areas that receive frost, that includes woodland and alpine areas, and 5 percent are from the desert. I literally embrace that 20 percent, the temperate and xeric, and a little bit of the subtropical that I can do terrible things to, and they don’t die.
Q. Out of the 12,000 species worldwide, you’re working with maybe 20 percent of them?
A. Well, I wish. I wish.
Q. But I mean, you could, you could.
A. You could. Theoretically, if I had a few more lifetimes to be here…
Q. Yes, that’s O.K..
A. … or I get to be reincarnated, which is possible, I may have been here, who knows? [Laughter.]
Q. I’m a plant person, you know, and so I have a thing for leaves, especially, I’m not much of a flower person, although lots of plants I have happen to have flowers, but it’s not my thing. I’m always looking at foliage, which ferns have to commend them, and I thought we could start by taking a virtual look together at some that are extra-showy, and are easier, maybe, to tell apart than some of the other ones, like standouts.
For instance, some that, when they come up or maybe again in the autumn, have orangey or bronzy color, like I have the autumn fern, I think it’s Dryopteris erythrosora [below]. There are others like that, correct? There are others like that, that have that to distinguish them. Can you tell us about a couple of those?
A. Correct, so those are our colors that are expressed in new foliage. From the greens, green is not just green as we know, but yellow-green, blue-green, black-green, brown-green, reddish-green—you know, pinkish-green. There are all kinds of nuances to green as we know when we look at trees and shrubs which aren’t in flower and other perennials. Ferns that have colored new growth tend to have pinkish, reddish, coppery new growth, which then turns to whatever is their normal green color, which could be a dark green or medium green, you know, whatever they’re going to come down to.
They do need a bit of sun. Now I live where there’s not a lot of sun, so what I can grow in full sun would probably be part sun somewhere else, or high filtered shade, so when I say anything goes in part sun, I mean early morning and/or late afternoon, and protection from about the 11:00 to 2:00 or 3:00 hot, midday sun.
Ferns don’t … plants don’t have the ability to carry an umbrella, neither can they pick themselves up and go into the shade and take a respite. [Laughter.] So it’s learning where the aspects of your property are, also where you live, so it’s like … all gardening is about finding the right place for the right plants. And sometimes you can read the books and you think you have it right, but the plant will actually tell you whether they think you have it right.
Do some research, but also watch the plant; listen to the plant.
Q. I saw on the website a couple of other ferns not unlike my autumn fern, that have that early color, I think one was called the Sunset Fern, and a little hard fern [Blechnum penna-marina subspecies alpina, above]. Tell me a couple of those.
A. Dryopteris lepidopoda [left] is what I call the sunset fern, referring to an Arizona sunset. I grew up in Arizona, with 2 inches of rain. This is one that I introduced into U.S. commerce, through a very wonderful liner grower that’s no longer in business in my area. Lepidopoda means scaly foot, which I really didn’t think was going to grab anybody all that much, so I thought, “What does it look like, how does it relate to the common names that are already in the trade?”
It is from Japan, sometimes the Japanese names do not translate into something that our audience in North America understands, so we look, I look, for characteristics.
There’s another one, Dryopteris cystolepidota, which used to be Dryopteris nipponica. It is like a manta ray in the ocean, so I call it the manta-winged autumn fern, because it just floats, it comes out horizontal and it absolutely is elegant and just floats. The names that I attach I think long and hard about, because I actually look at the Latin to see how it translates. Cystolepidota means scaly bladder; that one didn’t seem like a real gripper.
Q. Um, no.
A. For somebody to say, “Hey, I want that scaly bladder fern.” I try to have them make sense. Unfortunately, the trade doesn’t feel that way. They just make up names sort of willy-nilly. I’m not sure how their brains work. There is one Victorian cultivar, Dryopteris filix-mas ‘Fluctuosa Cristata,’ now sold as parsley fern [below].
Q. Parsley fern.
A. It is very bizarre, yes. But we already have an actual species known in the literature for many, many decades, as parsley fern, which is Cryptogramma acrostichoides, which is actually a native to the U.S. That gets confusing for people, confusing for me…
Q. Right, the names.
A. … because someone asks me for something, like a common name, the sword fern. Sword fern in California, Florida, and Texas, is a Boston fern type called Nephrolepis cordifolia. In the Northwest, it’s Polystichum munitum. That’s Western sword fern. I need a picture sometimes, and I’m happy to I.D things from pictures, which I do a lot.
Q. I know your customers are grateful for that help that you’re always willing to give, to really help them find what they’re looking for.
Let’s talk about a few of the other sort of showy, unusual ferns. I’m in zone 5B, so I don’t have the same climate as you. But last season at a plant sale, I was drawn to … it’s Polystichum polyblepharum, I think is what its name is. It had shiny foliage, like glossy foliage.
Q. I started wondering, are there other ferns that have handsome, glossy foliage like that? I think I saw on your website that, for instance, some of the Hart’s tongue ferns, the Asplenium, some of them do. Is that a characteristic that attracts people, as well?
A. Yes, it does, and I’d like to say something about Polystichum polyblepharum, which is also known as tassel fern. I bought my first one for 99 cents in the 70’s at the five and dime, because it’s been in the trade as a houseplant for a long time. And actually the autumn fern, Dryopteris erythrosora, a number of ferns came into cultivation as houseplants, even though they came from cold-hardy areas. Then people discovered, “Oh I can have this outside.”
A lot of the Polystichum, as Polystichum polyblepharum, will have extremely shiny growth, the hart’s tongues, which you mentioned, Asplenium scolopendrium [above], sometimes known as Phyllitis scolopendrium, they also are very shiny. Some of the Cyrtomium, which are known as holly ferns—which is confusing because Polystichum are known as holly ferns, too.
They tend to have some very shiny to dull foliage. The shiniest one, however, is the least hardy, and likes heat. But there are some that are probably zone 6. I have to say about zones 4, 5, 6—a 5 or a 4, which is like Minneapolis, Minnesota, which can get 50-below without snow cover, that’s a tough time. Sometimes, in these really cold climates, Zone 3s and 4s, who have wonderful, reliable snow-cover, they’re growing zone 6plants.
A. It’s all sort of … I mean, I’m so glad “Pirates of the Caribbean” came out because, Parrots of the Caribbean [laughter] because it is like the pirate’s code: That USDA thing is merely a guideline, mostly it takes into account the ultimate low and maybe the ultimate summer high, but it doesn’t tell you how long the low lasts or how long the high lasts, and so there are all these mitigating factors.
These are living entities, and they’re not all the same, sometimes. It also depends on the grower, and how they’re grown, and how they’re forced. People shouldn’t get too discouraged, because sometimes you’re slated to fail, because it went through so many different climate changed before it got to you, I find it amazing at what lives, not at what dies, to tell you the truth.
Q. I like to try three times, if I think something is possible, in three different spots in the yard, and so forth.
Among other showy things, we’ve talked a little bit about ones that have this early emerging color, about ones that have maybe a shiny surface to the foliage that’s attractive. Of course you mentioned earlier on the painted ferns, and that’s Athyrium niponicum, and then there’s all the painted ones… is that right? Am I saying that right?
A. Yes, ‘Pictum’ [above] and then they’re all the same forms, which, by the way, when you sow them from spore, when I see them from tissue culture—and trust me I’ve seen lots from either side of the equation, they don’t follow the rules. That’s the beauty of Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum.’
My advice to anyone picking a painted fern is you look for one that’s already settled in to its color, and you decide whether you want one with a lot of red, which actually disappears in the shade, they turn into mud, or the white, which I prefer in my climate because they really brighten up in the shade. They will have varying degrees of red to white to gray. The red is little spine-tipped hairs on the rachis, which is the center stem that holds the foliage or the pinnae.
Q. Right, so that’s what that color is, the midrib sort of, would you say? Yes. Oh.
A. It’ll flush out sometimes onto the pinnae that are attached to the central rachis. The whole stem is—the bottom part without foliage—is the stipe; the top part is the rachis, which holds the pinnae, which are the leaflets. The part that has the foliage is the blade, and the whole thing is the frond.
Q. Now we have…
A. Terminology. [Laughter.] [Refer to the Fancy Fronds glossary of fern terms here.]
Q. It is, it’s great, and they have their own world, the ferns. I have very smart friends, many, many years ago, and I think you probably know them, Glenn Withey and Charles Price, who are garden designers in Seattle area, we went shopping, they were visiting, and we went shopping. One of them, I don’t remember if it was Charles or Glenn, his eye just zoomed over to this shelf of painted fern in this nursery.
This was many, many years ago, and he literally, he noticed that some of them were, as you said, showing distinctive coloration, and he got a cart and he took off the shelf, all the ones that were really, really, really colorful in a way that he liked. Those are the ones that I have, and every time people come to visit, they say, “What cultivar is that?” I’m like, “It’s the one Charles picked off the shelves.” [Laughter.]
Do you know what I mean?
A. Right, it’s called normal range of variation, and the problem with most hobby growers or growers who haven’t experienced anything on a large scale of growing or in the wild, do not realize what happens when you sow these. You do have to sow thousands, and I was very fortunate to work with a Danish nurseryman and a big grower and get to see thousands. I grew them myself, and I got to see someone else’s crops, so it’s a great education.
By the way, they will revert to straight niponicum, which you see in the wild in Japan (as well as the colored ones), and straight niponicum is green. Very, very lovely green, it can vary from a dark green to a yellow-green, it can have varying degrees of red on it. It has ended up with all kinds of extra names that make it sound like a cultivar, but it’s actually just a species.
Q. I want to talk about a group of ferns. I know that you, probably like nurseries everywhere, are asked more and more about how people want tougher plants, like “Oh, we’re having more drought, we’re having more tough conditions.”
Resilient is the word I’m hearing a lot. I think that you especially recommend some of the Dryopteris for tough situations, or that are reliable, resilient garden plants. I wanted to talk about some of your favorites among them.
A. Yes, and they’re mostly of European ancestry, and American ancestry. The Japanese ones come from an area that has high summer rainfall, as will most of the Asian ones that we have. We’re talking about a group called the male ferns, which are Dryopteris affinis, which is a whole complex and they just split it up. But there are wonderful cultivars in there, from little dwarfs to big huge things, hybrids between affinis, things of affinis affinity, and filix-mas, which is the common male fern, which is actually a native in Eastern U.S., very rare in Western U.S., but very common in the U.K. and on the continent. [Above, D. affinis subspecies affinis ‘Polydactyla Dadds.’]
There are a number of Victorian cultivars that are fabulous. You can get everything from something that’s ruffled, to narrow, to just really big and bold, and it all likes the same kind of conditions.
They’re very tough, they go from complete shade, where they’re most drought-tolerant, to some sun, where they flourish. They’re great for cutting; some of them are wonderful in flower arrangements. You can change lilies, chrysanthemums, dahlias—they’ll throw their petals off three or four times before the fronds are done.
There are Dryopteris of East Coast origins, such as Dryopteris carthusiana, intermedia, clintoniana, goldiana, there’s some wonderful ones, which you do see. You don’t see them a lot on the market, but you do see them; they are being grown, and are well worth seeking out to find.
Q. The goldiana, yes, the Goldie’s fern, she’s a big girl. She’s not a girl, but you know what I mean, it’s a tall plant, goldiana, I think, yes.
A. Yes, and her heritage is in celsa, Dryopteris celsa, and Dryopteris clintoniana, which are hybrids that include goldiana. They’re a little bit faster and easier to grow, and a little tougher in terms of winter, being up in the winter.
I love John Mickel’s book, which talks about evergreen, and I told him, there was this condition called semi and sub-evergreen, which he asked me what it was, and I said, “Well, that’s where you sort of stay up.” And I said, “You’ve got what you call evergreen, and I call them ever-flat, under the snow.” [Laughter.] It’s not the same.
Q. You heard it here, first: It’s the technical distinction between evergreen and ever-flat.
A. Ever-flat. I do have some books to recommend if you have time?
judith jones’s fern booklist
JUDITH JONES shared a list of books she finds most useful:
Q. I have one more question for you, as well.
A. O.K., I also have a great quote from 1848 from a fern grower’s catalog in England.
Q. Tell me, tell me, tell me.
A. It is from Abraham Stansfield, who’s a very opinionated grower, and this was in his nursery catalog. It is one of the favorite quotes of fern people.
“The bright colors of ferns are admired by even the least intellectual. But the beauty of form and textures of ferns requires a higher degree of mental perception, and more intellect for its proper appreciation.”
Q. Oh, I see, O.K. [Laughter.]
A. So we know that he was opinionated. And I have to say, I came at gardening totally backwards, I grew up with cacti, and I actually started with ferns, and cycads, and conifers, and kind of moved into perennials, and then trees, and then I’ve actually now … I know a little bit about vegetables, but not much. [Laughter.]
Q. O.K., so you definitely went backwards. Well, I’m fascinated. One of the groups—no, not a group—but one of the sort of appearances that I’m the most attracted to are some of the crested ferns, I think some of the Dryopteris are … they have just, almost like, I think you used the word “frizzled”? [Above, detail of crested male fern.]
A. Forked, forked. We call it cresting, so that fork at the apex or pinnae tips. They divide once or many times, like Dryopteris affinis ‘Cristata The King.’ And there are crested lady ferns, English lady ferns … Some have forks; there’ll be cristatum and then they’ll be narrowed or they’ll be ruffled, which means they look like goffered ruff on an Elizabethan woman; Queen Elizabeth comes to mind.
And with the Polystichum setiferums, they have their own section, they are divided from their original falcate lobes into the divisilobes, and the multilobes, and then the plumose multilobes…
Q. Uh-oh. [Laughter.] [Above, Polystichum setiferum ‘Divisilobum,’a Victorian-era favorite.
A. …and it just … you can get four and five times divided, or you can be simple.
There are all these nuances that can happen, and it seems to happen particularly in England. I read a couple of accounts of why. One was that there was radon in the rocks, but my favorite was that the British ferns were eccentric because the British people were eccentric. [Laughter.]
Q. Well, on that note, Judith Jones of Fancy Fronds Nursery, international fern expert, and as my father used to say, you’re a pip, Judith Jones, and I so appreciate your making time to speak with us about your subject of great passion.
A. It’s my delight, Margaret, absolutely my delight. [Laughter.]
more from judith jones
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its ninth year in March 2018. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the March 5, 2018 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).