12 Best Ferns for Shade 2023 [Updated]

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12 Best Small & Large Ferns for Shade

Fern fronds
Ferns usually have a preference for moist environments and partial shade. Sanjay ach, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Cultivated for their stunning textures, variety of growth habits, and ease of care, ferns are some of the most rewarding plants to look after. The complexity of their foliage and their unique means of self-propagation easily make up for their lack of seasonal blooms. These ecologically valuable plants create structure, shade, and protection for flora, fauna, and microbes in many temperate to tropical parts of the globe.

In general, ferns favor humid and partly shaded environments. If there is a consistent source of moisture and rich media onto which their roots can latch, they are more likely to thrive and mature into well-established, drought-resistant plants. As they are naturally suited to conditions in the understories of forests, they are ideal candidates for filling out gaps in a warm and damp shade garden. Many hardy species can also survive in indoor locations with low light levels.

Direct sunlight can unfortunately scorch and damage the leaves of many tender ferns. More often than not, these plants have truly evolved to take root in shade. You can grow them alongside other flowering species to create your own miniature forest. A diversity of ferns, with various leaf structures, foliar colors, and interesting textures, should light up just about any space.

1) Western sword fern (Polystichum munitum)

Western sword fern
The orientation of the western sword fern’s fronds can change depending on where it receives sunlight and how much it can access. Timothy McNitt / CC BY 4.0

Native to western North America

The western sword fern is one of the most commonplace species of ferns in the forests of British Columbia, California, and other locations along the Pacific coastline. This lovely, evergreen perennial favors conditions in the understories of moist forests and low woodlands. Despite its clear preference for abundant moisture, it is known for being quite resilient in the face of dry and warm conditions.

The fronds of the western sword fern can grow to a maximum length of about 4 – 5 feet (1.2 – 1.5 meters)! They typically occur in clumps, with each lustrous frond arching outward from the crown of the plant. The leaflets along each of the fronds are shaped much like miniature daggers. The largest of these can measure up to 6 inches (15 cm) long. Sori, which contain light yellow spores, may occur on either side of the leaflets.

The orientation of this fern’s fronds may be influenced by the amount of sunlight they are able to access. In fully shaded gardens, the fronds may expand in a more horizontal manner. Exposure to partial or dappled sunlight should encourage them to maintain a more upright orientation. Either way, they should be perfectly healthy in rich, shaded locations with ample ventilation.

2) Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)

Ostrich ferns in forest
Ostrich fern fronds are usually healthiest in areas with partial or full shade. Oleg Kosterin / CC BY 4.0

Native to North America, northern Asia, and Europe

The ostrich fern is one of the most popular ornamental ferns for good reason. Apart from producing fronds that can grow quite large (up to 4 feet or 122 cm long), its young fronds initially arise as tightly curled “fiddleheads”. This gives the plant an appearance that seems to invoke arrested motion, with the young ferns frozen in time and space.

In the wild, ostrich ferns can easily tower over other plants as they reach a maximum height of about 6 feet (1.8 meters). Specimens in cultivation rarely reach this height, even if they are grown in appropriately cool and moist climates. In regions with cool winters, the lengthy, sterile fronds maintain a deciduous habit and lose their feathery leaflets. Fertile fronds, which retain a low height and have warmer, brown hues, can persist through winter.

The fully extended fronds of this species resemble the feathery plumes of ostriches. They are finely dissected, with each leaflet being further subdivided. The fronds tend to be healthiest in partial to full shade and in areas with naturally rich and moisture-retentive substrates. As mature plants can tolerate wet soils, they are ideal for bog gardens and pond borders.

3) Southern woodfern (Dryopteris ludoviciana)

Southern woodfern
The southern woodfern thrives in loamy, humus-rich substrates. Laura Gaudette / CC BY 4.0

Native to the southern US

A slow-growing, medium-sized perennial, the woodland fern maintains year-round color in mild climates. Its fronds have an almost dramatic appearance as they are leathery, shiny, and remarkably textural. These will certainly dance in the wind to create a living spectacle of movement during the rainiest and windiest days of the year. During calm days, the finely textured fronds gracefully splay out.

Able to tolerate dappled sunlight to deep shade, the southern woodfern grows best in loamy, humus-rich substrates. It is able to self-propagate by producing horizontally creeping rhizomes. When nutrient levels are high, these can spread quickly enough to create full-fledged colonies. They should be quite easy to maintain. Nonetheless, if you’re concerned about your slower-growing shade plants, you may consider restricting this fern’s roots to within containers and pots.

4) Hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula)

Hay-scented fern
Hay-scented fern fronds can reach a maximum length of about 30 inches. Laura Costello / CC BY 4.0

Native to eastern North America

As suggested by its common name, D. punctilobula produces a hay-like aroma when its fronds are crushed or brushed. A deciduous fern, its light green, lacy, and triangular leaves turn yellow as soon as temperatures begin to cool considerably in fall. They naturally die back in winter, only to be succeeded by fresh clumps of light green fronds in the succeeding spring.

The fronds of this scented fern arise in a rosette formation. As they extend to a full length of about 30 inches (76 cm) each, they eventually arch outward in a graceful manner. To make up for the short-lived life of the fronds, this species can grow quite rapidly. In rich substrates and shaded areas, its rhizomes can spread to create colonies. This makes it a suitable species for naturalizing the borders of wildlife ponds and the forested portions of cottage gardens.

5) Cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum)

Cinnamon fern
Cinnamon fern requires protection from direct sun and constant moisture for its fronds to be long-lived and healthy. Larry Jensen / CC BY 4.0

Native to the Americas and East Asia

The sole living member of its genus, Osmundastrum, the cinnamon fern is notable for having a fossil record that extends as far back as the Late Cretaceous period. This stunning fern began to grace the earth while dinosaurs roamed its lands. Interestingly, despite being a fairly primitive plant, it resembles the appearance of many modern ferns. This just goes to show how well-preserved ferns truly are.

With such an effective strategy for survival and colonization, it’s no wonder why the cinnamon fern is able to produce dense, self-sustaining stands in the wild. In optimal substrates, the roots of this species can become dense, wiry, and massive. These are occasionally harvested for use as a medium for growing orchids. The clumped material is often referred to as “osmunda fiber”.

This species’ common name alludes to the cinnamon-like color of its spore-bearing fronds; it doesn’t actually taste like cinnamon! Tolerant of heavy shade, both sterile and fertile fronds grow best in moist, humus-rich, and humid areas. Protection from direct sun and the consistent provision of moisture are key to maintaining long-lived and lengthy fronds.

6) Marginal wood fern (Dryopteris marginalis)

Marginal wood fern
Strong winds can damage marginal wood fern fronds, so you should provide appropriate protection. Adrienne van den Beemt / CC BY 4.0

Native to eastern North America

The marginal wood fern grows best in shaded areas with damp, acidic, and humus-rich substrates. It should be afforded protection from strong winds, which can damage its delicate fronds. High humidity can improve the quality of the leaves and enhance their feathery features. As this species grows to a maximum height of just 1 – 2 feet (30 – 61 cm), it would be best to situate it next to other low-growing plants.

There are many valid reasons for wanting to cultivate this low-maintenance plant. First, unlike other ferns that may spread aggressively, it does not spread via underground runners. Second, its well-established specimens are drought-tolerant and rarely become plagued by pests and diseases. Third, the evergreen fronds of the marginal wood fern can add stunning, year-round color to a shade garden. Lastly, taking a peek under mature fertile fronds reveals a visually satisfying arrangement of this fern’s sori!

7) Staghorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum)

Staghorn fern on tree
The staghorn fern gets its name from its leaves that resemble antlers! Daniel Patterson / CC BY 4.0

Native to Australia, New Guinea, and Java

The staghorn or elkhorn fern is one of the most stunningly sculptural plants for shade gardens and other low-light locations. Capable of growing without soil, this tropical fern maintains an epiphytic habit. This means that its roots are able to cling to the rough surfaces of trees and rocks. As they anchor the plant, these specialized roots obtain the necessary moisture and nutrients from rainwater and debris.

The staghorn fern has a couple of notable features. First, instead of having the tiny leaflets that typically form the complex fronds of ferns, it has large, strap-shaped leaves. As suggested by the species epithet, bifurcatum, these leaves are split in several locations and may resemble the appearance of arching antlers. Second, instead of having just one distinct type of leaf, it has two! Around the base of its fertile, green leaves are brown, heart-shaped, infertile ones.

Often cultivated as an ornamental fern, P. bifurcatum thrives best in locations that mimic conditions in its wild environment. You may encourage the plant to grow beneath the canopies and along the branches of taller trees. A recipient of the RHS Award of Garden Merit, it is perfect for sheltered locations in the garden.

8) Delta maidenhair fern (Adiantum raddianum)

Delta maidenhair fern
The delta maidenhair fern is smaller in comparison with other ferns, which makes it suitable as an indoor plant. jsimons / CC BY 4.0

Native to South America

The maidenhair fern is named for the stringy appearance of its dark leaf stalks, which are fine enough to resemble strands of hair. Attached to these stalks are noticeably delicate leaflets with organically curved outer margins. Collectively, the leaflets form arching, triangular fronds that can measure up to 12 inches (30 cm) long on mature plants.

In its native environment, this tropical fern favors moist substrates along the forest floor. It is frequently found growing close to rivers and streams. It also thrives in rocky areas where other plants may struggle to survive, such as in fissures and along cliffs. To persist in these areas, it requires ample rainwater and protection from larger plants. These preferences make it suitable for cultivating in partly shaded areas with adequate airflow and consistent moisture.

As the mature size of the maidenhair fern tends to level out at 1 – 2 feet (30 – 61 cm), it may be dwarfed and hidden by the leaves of larger perennials and taller ferns. If you intend to grow it in your shade garden, consider placing it in elevated pots or growing it alongside non-aggressive ground cover plants. Note that this easy-to-manage size makes it perfect as an indoor plant!

9) Autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora)

Autumn fern fronds
The autumn fern is a great choice for shade gardens and can tolerate both partial and full shade. Emily Summerbell / CC BY 4.0

Native to East Asia

Best grown in areas with mild to warm climates, this tropical fern hails from heavily forested woodlands in hilly and mountainous regions. Hardy to USDA zones 5 – 8, it may also be referred to as Japanese shield fern. It is undoubtedly one of the most colorful ferns around as its fronds have a dynamic, year-round appearance. If you’re unfamiliar with this species, you might mistakenly associate its change of color with cooling temperatures.

Despite its common name, the changing colors of the autumn fern are not necessarily linked to autumn as a season. Instead, its fronds start off in warm pink or copper tones. Over time, they eventually develop into deeper shades of green. The new leaves emerge in spring to contrast the darker-colored leaves of the previous season. Together, they create a brilliant spectacle of both warm and cool tones.

This is, by far, one of the best types of ferns for adding color to a shade garden. It is able to tolerate both partial shade or full shade conditions, though mature specimens may benefit from more sunlight. Note that, in cool temperate zones, the fronds may die back in winter.

10) Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum)

Japanese painted fern
Japanese painted ferns should be protected from full sunlight, especially during the warmest times of the year. Jack Byrley / CC BY 4.0

Native to East Asia

If you peer closely at the leaflets of the Japanese painted fern, you’ll find that they truly look like works of art. Arising from reddish midribs, each leaflet typically has a silvery-grey base. These subtle hues eventually give rise to a muted green color that perfectly accents the deeper tones of the plant. Nowadays, fern enthusiasts can choose from several painted fern cultivars with varied shades of silvery reds and greens.

Hardy to USDA zones 4 – 9, the Japanese painted fern is a common addition to ornamental shade gardens in the US and Europe. Its tolerance for high levels of moisture also makes it a fantastic border plant for water features. To truly draw attention to the colors of this species, which can easily stand out in the shade because of their metallic undertones, grow it in groups or at the forefront of deeper-toned ferns.

The Japanese painted fern is intolerant of full or direct sun exposure. This can damage its leaves and cause them to have a bleached or burnt appearance. Make sure the fronds are afforded protection from full sun, especially during the warmest periods of the year. Partial or dappled shade is usually the best exposure type for bringing out intense leaf colors. Full shade can lead to more muted hues.

11) Alpine wood fern (Dryopteris wallichiana)

Alpine wood fern
The alpine wood fern is a slow-growing plant that reaches its maximum height after about 10 years. jodyhsieh / CC BY 4.0

Native to Central America, Hawaii, and the Himalayas

Commonly called Mr. Wallich’s fern or the alpine wood fern, this semi-evergreen species is suitable for shade gardens with other slow-growing perennials and small to moderately-sized ground cover plants. It takes up to 10 years to reach its maximum height and spread of about 1 x 1 meter (3 x 3 feet). Its lovely tufts of bright-green fronds are definitely worth the care and patience!

In the wild, this fern typically grows under the shade of taller trees. Its young fronds have a yellowish-green hue that complements the appearance of its darker, older leaves. These initially appear in the center of the plant, which maintains a shuttlecock-like arrangement of fronds. The leaflets, which arise in pairs, are borne by deep brown midribs. These maintain an upright manner until they are long enough to slightly arch outward.

Easily described as a stately fern, this species is a recipient of the RHS Award for Garden Merit. It thrives best in partly to fully shaded parts of the garden. To maintain its appearance and resistance to diseases, its roots should be consistently provided with moisture. Over time, a single specimen may eventually sport up to 60 fronds!

12) Holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum)

Holly fern
The holly fern is low-maintenance and is perfect as a border or groundcover plant. Christian Berg / CC BY 4.0

Native to Africa and Asia

If you’re after a shade-loving fern with eye-catching bright leaflets, make sure to search for the holly fern. A member of the wood fern family (Dryopteridaceae), this perennial fern is frequently grown as an ornamental plant in partly shaded temperate gardens and in indoor locations. It is known for being relatively hardy compared to other ferns, especially as it can thrive in average soils.

A recipient of the RHS Award of Garden Merit, the holly fern favors ambient conditions in USDA hardiness zones 6 – 10. It forms clumps of fronds that can measure up to 3 feet (91 cm) long in partly sunny to fully shaded areas. Due to its ease of care and its favorable bushiness, it makes for a great border or groundcover plant in woodland gardens. As its leaves may eventually become deep green, its well-established clumps should also serve as a fantastic backdrop for flowering herbs.

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