What Kind of Ferns to Plant Around Your Pond? (Best Ferns for Ponds)
Found all over the planet, from the most pristine tropical rainforests to urban gardens in sprawling cities, ferns have just about dominated the plant world. With a whopping 10,500 living species, they belong to one of the most diverse groups of plants. It’s no wonder why this type of plant has evolved to withstand so many conditions, as it is reported to have first appeared in ancient times. Yes, even before dinosaurs first roamed the earth!
Interestingly, although they had several millennia to diversify, all ferns adhere to the same basic structure. They consist of 3 major parts: (1) the frond, which is the segmented leaf of the fern; (2) the rhizome, which is a stem that can grow laterally, vertically, or as a solid erect mass; and the (3) sporangia, which are located underneath fertile fronds and contain the reproductive spores of the plant. From the smallest recorded ferns to the largest towering tree-like fern, this structure is largely conserved across genera and may account for the phenomenal survivability of this plant group. Luckily, however, ferns are generally not known to be invasive.
Why Choose Ferns for Your Pond? (Pond Fern Benefits)
Robust, bright green, and typically moisture-loving, ferns would make a great addition to the margins of ponds or bog gardens. As long as the crown of the plant is kept dry, some ferns will even thrive in waterlogged soil.
The peaceful appearance of their fronds, with leaflets that gently rustle in the wind, will undoubtedly add character to your garden. If you’re looking to plant them around your pond, here are some beautiful species to consider.
List of the Best Ferns to Plant Around Your Pond
1) Ostrich fern (Matteucia struthiopteris)
Also called shuttlecock fern or ostrich-feather fern, Matteucia Struthiopteris has elegantly arching fronds that resemble featherlike plumes. Each lamina, or leaf blade, is finely segmented. Unquestionably a beautiful addition to the backdrop of a pond, this potentially large-sized fern can grow up to 6 feet tall (180 cm) and up to 4 feet wide (120 cm). It forms clumps of erect shuttlecock-like rosettes that enjoy full or partial shade, thrive in cool temperatures, and can tolerate moist to wet nutrient-rich soil. Moreover, it is fairly resistant to pests and diseases. Because of these qualities, it was given the Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society!
Producing new sterile fronds that unfurl each spring, this deciduous fern depreciates throughout the summer and autumn months, and finally becomes dormant during winter. It is succeeded by clumps of smaller, fertile brown fronds that persist through the cold. This perennial fern thrives best in USDA hardiness zones 3 – 7. To propagate, dig up the offsets and relocate them during spring. For best growth, it is advisable to let this species form its own colonies. It can withstand sandy to clay soil and grows in both alkaline and acidic soil conditions. To maintain its featherlike appearance and to prevent disease, remove dead fronds and keep this fern in dappled shade.
2) Royal fern (Osmunda regalis ‘Purpurascens’)
Osmunda regalis is popularly known as royal fern, common flowering fern, bog onion, and buckhorn brake. The cultivar ‘Purpurascens’ is distinct because its rachis, or stem, is colored a deep shade of purple. One of the largest temperate ferns, this ornate vase-shaped plant has bright green foliage that can grow as tall as 6 feet (180 cm). Often described as ‘majestic’, the fern is distinct as it develops brown, upright, tassel-like clusters that tower over the plant, bear its spores, and look like its flowers. The young deciduous leaves are purple in color prior to unfurling into bold green, slightly blue-tinged fronds.
Royal ferns have coarse arching fronds that will favor conditions along the border of your pond. In nature, they typically thrive along the edges of streams, and can, at times, even be found growing in water. Though this plant prefers medium to wet soil and partial shade, it can tolerate full sun when exposed to cool summer climates (USDA hardiness zones 4 – 8). Conversely, too much shade may also cause the fronds to collapse midsummer.
Towards autumn and winter, the fronds of O. regalis may begin to turn yellow or brown as they mature. It is advisable to cut them down to the ground once the color has faded. Aside from being ornamental, royal ferns are used in the plant industry for their Osmunda fibers. Used by experts to grow epiphyte orchids, these are essentially the plant’s fibrous roots.
3) Shaggy wood fern (Dryopteris cycadina)
Commonly referred to as shaggy wood fern or black wood fern, Dryopteris cycadina is an attractive medium-sized fern. Its fronds are oriented similar to that of water that has just spurted out of a ground fountain or spring, adding charm to the plant’s overall character. Typically vase-shaped, the shaggy wood fern has dark green fronds that are stiff to the touch and bring to mind the texture of leather. These fronds, which arise from creeping rhizomes in a shuttlecock-like arrangement, are composed of 20-30 pairs of narrow lance-shaped leaflets.
The lamina and stipe, or the sections to which the leaves are attached, are characterized by dark scales that are more pronounced on young fronds. The eye-catching contrast between the dark laminae and green leaflets makes this fern a more nuanced choice for the borders of your pond! Also a recipient of the RHS Award of Garden Merit, this relatively hardy plant has a preference for moist, well-drained soil that is both loamy and rich in organic matter. It thrives best in partial to full shade and can tolerate high humidity conditions.
This semi-evergreen fern is hardy to USDA zones 6 – 9. To maintain its graceful appearance, regularly remove mature or faded fronds. To prevent overcrowding, propagate the plant via division in spring. It may also be propagated with spores as soon as they are ripe. If this fern is unavailable in your area, other buckler fern alternatives include Dryopteris dilatata, Dryopteris cristata, and Dryopteris expansa.
4) Lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina)
Owing to the lace-cut appearance of its light green leaflets, Athyrium filix-femina is widely referred to as lady fern or female polypody. Markedly elegant and vigorous, this deciduous fern is notable for its large rosettes of arching or upright fronds. Across its native range, the stems of the lady fern are highly variable in appearance. They tend to be greenish-yellow in color, though in some areas the stems are red. Its genus name stems from the Greek word Athyros, which means “doorless”. This is in reference to its hinged indusia or slowly-opening spore covers.
Growing up to 3 feet (90 cm) tall and up to 30 inches (75 cm) wide, the lady fern is notoriously easy to nurture, and will happily form large colonies given the right conditions. With an affinity for partial to full shade, this fern grows best in humus-rich, moderately moist, and well-drained soil. In comparison to other ferns, it is also known for being more tolerant of dry soils and can tolerate full sun as long as it regularly has access to moisture.
Known for being hardy, the lady fern has an almost cosmopolitan distribution across a wide range of habitats. In the US, it is hardy to zones 4 – 9 and is considered a low-maintenance plant. To conserve its beauty, regularly remove damaged or dead fronds. The lady fern may be propagated via spores or by division during spring.
5) Marsh fern (Thelypteris palustris)
Thelypteris palustris is commonly known as marsh fern, ground fern, or marsh buckler fern. It is notable for having extremely fine and gracefully arching fronds, with leaflets that are often twisted or curved. Its long light-green fronds extend to up to 24 inches (60 cm) and feature 10 – 40 pairs of leaflets that are segmented further into oblong-shaped subleaflets.
Unlike the ferns mentioned above, the marsh fern has a preference for full sun exposure. It can grow in lightly shaded areas as well, but will not thrive in dense shade. It is also partial to acidic sandy soil that is kept moderately moist or regularly wet. Found in swamps, bogs, streambanks, and wet fields in the wild, this fern is well-suited for growth along the sunlit borders of a pond or bog garden. It forms dense cover as protection for small wildlife, and it is the only known host plant for a species of moth, invariably named after it – the marsh fern moth (Fagitana littera). This moth has been listed as a species of concern in the US.
Hardy to USDA zones 5 – 10, the marsh fern is not known for having any serious disease or pest problems. It is easily propagated via spores or by rhizome division in the spring. Maintain this fern’s graceful appearance by dividing the plant before the clusters get overcrowded and by regularly removing dead or decaying leaves.
6) Hard fern (Blechnum spicant)
Marked by its unique texture, Blechnum spicant is widely referred to as hard fern, deer fern, herringbone fern, northern fern, or rusty back. The bright green fronds of this fern are leathery and glossy. Its fertile fronds, which arise from the center of a sterile frond rosette, are particularly odd as the leaflets are widely separated, thin, and tough. These ladder-like fronds dry out and wither away in autumn, leaving a horizontally-oriented basal tuft of softer fronds.
The tough exterior of hard fern allows it to thrive more easily through chilly winters. This makes it a more ideal fern for ponds and gardens located further north. Best grown in full to partial shade, this leathery fern can grow up to 24 inches (60 cm) tall and 36 inches (90 cm) wide. It has a preference for acidic, well-drained, and consistently moist soil. It is advisable to use compost as mulch around the base of the fern to help the soil retain moisture. Though this fern grows at a slow rate, it is in leaf throughout the year! This makes it a great perennial candidate for ensuring that your pond’s edges stay green throughout the seasons.
Hard fern is native to USDA zones 5 – 9 and thrives in clay or loam soil. It is tolerant to grazing by rabbits or deer and is a relatively pest- and disease-free fern. Due to its favorable qualities, it has also received the RHS Award of Garden Merit. Easily propagate this plant by division during the spring or by sowing its spores in mid to late summer.
7) Northern oak fern (Gymnocarpium dryopteris)
Known for filling in even the shadiest of crevices in the forest understory, Gymnocarpium dryopteris is popularly known as northern oak fern or common oak fern. It belongs to the Cystopteridaceae family of small ferns. Native to deciduous woodlands but not actually associated with oak trees, this fern is characterized by generally triangular fronds that extend up to 7 inches (18 cm) long. Each “leaf” has 6-10 pairs of oppositely arranged leaflets, with segments that are oblong in outline and taper towards the tip. The fronds, which appear as though they are whorls composed of 3 leaves each, are oriented in such a manner that they are almost fully parallel to the ground.
Given just the right amount of space to spread its delicate stems, this fern can beautifully weave through other plants around the pond. This can create the dramatic appearance of a tapestry of interwoven textures! Hardy to USDA zones 2 – 8, the northern oak fern grows best in well-draining, moist soil. Extremely cold tolerant, they are even known for growing as far north as Greenland, though they don’t retain their greenery through winter.
8) Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum)
Last, but most definitely not least, is a fern known for its strikingly unique foliage. Athyrium niponicum is commonly referred to as Japanese painted fern or painted lady fern. Unlike other ferns, this species is a dead ringer for outstanding elegance and is sure to set your pond apart. Its arching fronds are lance-shaped, bipinnate, and form large rosettes. Its most notable feature is the painted appearance of its leaflets, which are a soft shade of blue-green accented by a shimmery silver overlay. In contrast, the midribs are a dark purple to burgundy color and give the fronds an almost variegated appearance. Unsurprisingly, many vibrant cultivars have been developed.
Growing up to 18 inches (45 cm) tall and 24 inches (60 cm) wide, this attractive plant is relatively easy to cultivate and can form multiple colonies given the right conditions. Hardy to USDA zones 3 – 8, it grows best in partial or full shade. It has a preference for fertile, well-draining, moist to wet soil with very acidic to neutral pH levels. It is also largely pest and disease-free. These outstanding features make its addition to your pond an absolute must if you are able to find it in your local plant nursery or aquascaping shops.
Grow this species with other bright green ferns to give your pond edges a dappled appearance! To achieve the look of an oriental pond garden, surround this fern with an assortment of evenly layered stones, pebbles, and mossy ground cover. Achieve a ‘zen-like’ feel by cultivating this fern as a focal point next to your pond!