Ohio Landscape Association

Perennial Focus


Most gardeners look first to flowers for color. Designers look first to foliage for color and texture and then to flowers, because foliage color and texture last much longer than flowers. This reliance on foliage is even more important in the shade garden. If you have a client who loves bright colors, it is difficult to find them in plants that thrive in the shade.

One exception is Dryopteris erythrosora, the Autumn Fern. As the pink fiddleheads unfurl, they become glossy fronds that are coppery orange. Although they eventually turn a lustrous dark green, they do jazz up the shade and last well into winter. Happily, although most new fronds appear in the spring, if the site is irrigated, they also appear sporadically throughout summer and fall, more true of the cultivar Brilliance' than the species.

This fern has several other attributes. While it is amenable to moist soil, it will also thrive in dry shade once established. I have planted it in a few different spots, one of which is quite dry but the fern is thriving. Deer leave it alone and its size, only 18 inches high and wide, means that it can be used in the front or middle of a border. When irrigated, it can become larger.

Autumn Fern is native to Asia but is quite happy and suitable in our landscapes and is hardy to zone 5.

I love to use this fern as a textural contrast to bold foliage such as Kirengeshoma palmata (which must have moisture to thrive), any of the shade loving hardy geraniums, beside the large leaves of hellebores and in front of Hydrangea arborescens Invincibelle Spirit'. In another location, at the base of an old Pieris japonica, I've planted it to hide the bare "bottoms".

You can't go wrong with this tough but lovely fern.

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