Mama…where do fern babies come from?

If you’re a nursery, and you’d like to offer ferns, the plants at your disposal are somewhat limited. A large majority of ferns sold in America are still sadly dug from the wild. When you see a catalog listing primarily these ferns together…usually an very inexpensive prices, you can be pretty much assured they were dug from the wild: Osmunda regalis (royal fern), Osmunda cinnamomea (Cinnamon Fern), Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas Fern), Matteuccia Matteuccia struthiopteris (Ostrich fern), Adiantum pedatum (Maidenhair fern), Athyrium filix-femina (lady fern), and Onoclea sensibilis (Sensitive Fern). These ferns are often sold bareroot, to save the nursery the expense of having to pot the collected plants, many of which are so large, they won’t fit in small containers.

The other majority of ferns in the market are produced by tissue culture, either by a couple of labs in Florida, one in Texas, and one in Holland. Without the amazing work of these labs, the fern selections available to homeowners would be limited to the wild collections. Even with their amazing work, these labs must focus on well-known ferns that sell in very large numbers.

While we make use of the lab offerings, we also made a commitment over 30 years ago to grow many of our own ferns from spores. Outside of a few small fern specialists, there are few nurseries who grow their own ferns from spores, since this is the most costly and time consuming option. The reason we do this is so that we can offer fern species and selected forms that are otherwise unavailable.

Below is a quick summary of how the process works. Fern spores (fern equivalents of seed) are collected through the summer, and are dried in paper envelopes until they separate from the foliage. They are then sown in pots with potting soil that is sterilized here, and then sealed in ziploc bags. The spore takes from 1 month to 6 months to germinate. Once the spores germinate, they are ready to have sex…a process that is reversed from more modern evolved flowering plants.

To assist the ferns have sex, we gently add water to the newly germinated sporelings, since ferns (other than desert ferns) only have sex while they are swimming. The water is swirled around to mimic the feel of a whirlpool, then the bags are then resealed, and put in the dark where they are subjected to a near constant montage of Barry White music.

Within a few weeks, tiny fern fronds begin to emerge. At this point, the ziploc bags are opened to allow the humidity to equalize with the ambient air. After another couple of weeks the pots are removed from the ziploc bags. If the spore were viable and cleaned well without contamination, and if germination was good, there will be up to several hundred plants per pot.

After a few weeks, the sporelings are transplanted into a cell pack flat. Here they grow out for another few months until they are ready to be planted into our 1 qt. pots, in which they will be sold. In all, it’s about an 18 month process, and a good bit of labor. We’re really quite passionate about our fern collection at JLBG, which the visiting British Fern Society declared one of the largest/most diverse in the world. We hope you find the results worthwhile.

Fern zombies awaken in the garden

Close up image of Coniogramme gracillis unfurling

Coniogramme gracillis unfurling

Like sci-fi zombies re-awakening, ferns in the garden are spring back to life.  Nothing says spring quite like the presence of new fern fronds emerging…known as croziers.  Below are several different fern images we’ve taken as they emerged this spring.  The first is the bamboo fern, coniogramme.

Close up image of Lepisorus tosaensis unfurling

Lepisorus tosaensis unfurling

Lepisorus or ribbon ferns, with their long narrow fronds are quite unique.

Matteuccia The King with new and old fronds

Matteuccia The King with new and old fronds

Matteucia or ostrich fern emerges alongside last years’ spore bearing fronds providing an interesting contrast.

Onoclea sensibilis Supersize with summer and winter fronds.

Onoclea sensibilis Supersize with summer and winter fronds.

Osmunda cinnamomea emerging

Osmunda cinnamomea emerging

Osmunda cinnamomea unfurling

Osmunda cinnamomea unfurling

Onoclea, aka sensitive fern does the same, holding both the new fronds alongside the old fertile fronds from the prior season..  Ferns like this are called dimorphic, which means they have two different frond types…fertile and non-fertile.  Most ferns pack light and have both on the same frond. 

Osmunda regalis unfurling

Osmunda regalis unfurling

The two images above are our native Osmunda cinnamomea or Cinnamon fern.  The hairy croziers are just amazing.  Recent taxonomy has actually kicked this out of the genus Osmunda and created a new genus, Osmundastrum.   Hmmm.

Polystichum acrostichoides unfurling

Polystichum acrostichoides unfurling

Here is its cousin, Osmunda regalis or royal fern…another great US native that’s also native in Europe and Asia.

Polystichum makinoi unfurling

Polystichum makinoi unfurling

Polystichum makinoi unfurling

Polystichum makinoi unfurling

This is the lovely native Polystichum acrostichoides or Christmas fern…also wonderfully hairy as it emerges.

Polystichum tagawanum unfurling

Polystichum tagawanum unfurling

Here are two images of the Asian tassel fern, Polystichum makinoi that we took a week apart as the croziers unfurled.

Pteris vittata unfurling

Pteris vittata unfurling

The lovely Asian, brown-haired  Polystichum tagawanum.

Thelypteris lindheimeri crozier

Thelypteris lindheimeri crozier

Our winter hardy form of the table fern, Pteris vittata

Woodsia subcordata emerging

Woodsia subcordata emerging

A single picture perfect crozier of the Texas native, Thelypteris lindheimeri

And finally, the dwarf Woodsia subcordata.  How can you fail to find joy in this amazing spring rebirth?  We hope you’ll visit our fern offerings and choose some of these deer resistant gems for your own garden.