Native Delaware: Fern finery
Amidst spring color, unfurling ferns offer different kind of beauty
8:06 a.m., May 16, 2013--The May landscape at Winterthur is reminiscent of a child’s finger painting. Here, a bright splash of red and coral from azaleas. There, luminescent lavender on lilacs and phlox. Throw in a cheerful dab of gold from Rhododendron luteum and a dash of pastel pinks from dogwoods, too.
Amidst this riot of color, Linda Eirhart was a woman on a mission one recent morning. Oblivious to the rainbow hues around her, Eirhart drove a golf cart down Winterthur’s pathways, searching for new ferns unfurling their fronds.
Fishing, filtering, math
At first glance, one might wonder why Eirhart, Winterthur’s assistant director of horticulture, would bother chasing down ferns. Unlike spring blooms, there’s no immediate wow factor. All the ferns are pretty small now, even the ones that will ultimately reach two to three feet high. It’s easy to overlook a tiny fern growing just a few inches from the ground. However, if you crouch down for a closer look, you’ll enjoy a sight as spectacular in its own right as the brash blooms of spring.
Take, for example, emerging hay-scented ferns. These clusters of chartreuse apostrophes twirling in the breeze resemble some bizarre plant from a Dr. Seuss book. Another fern that looks other-worldly now is cinnamon fern. Its fronds are tightly wound in a circular clump, encased in white hairs.
“Ferns are a real favorite of mine,” says Eirhart. “They’re fascinating as they emerge. Then, once they unfurl and mature, they provide interesting foliage and texture throughout the growing season.”
Not to mention the way they seem to lower the thermometer once the steamy hot days of summer arrive.
“Ferns create a cooling, peaceful effect in a landscape,” says Sue Barton, UD Cooperative Extension specialist for ornamental horticulture. “The March Bank at Winterthur is a great example of this cooling effect.”
The March Bank’s main claim to fame is its spring color. In the early 1900s, H.F. du Pont began planting thousands of bulbs on a hillside near his home that he dubbed the March Bank. He mixed ostrich, cinnamon and New York ferns amidst the bulbs for season-long interest. Du Pont would go on to inherit Winterthur from his father and, a short time after that, establish the property as a museum.
Come summer, the ferns that du Pont planted will create a thick, lush carpet of green in a range of colors, shapes and sizes. There’s the almost chartreuse green of the New York fern, which contrasts with the multi-colored hues of the cinnamon fern. The cinnamon fern has two types of fronds – large green sterile ones and smaller fertile ones that start out bright green and soon turn a cinnamon color. Some of the taller varieties include the ostrich fern, which can reach 5 feet and the New York fern, which tops out at 2 feet in ideal conditions.
“I love ferns,” says Chris Strand, director of garden and estate at Winterthur. “Growing up in Colorado, ferns weren’t common. We didn’t get 39 inches of rain annually like Delaware gets, nor did we have the right soil conditions for ferns. When I moved East, I was amazed by all the ferns here. It’s beautiful now, when the bluebells are fading on the March Bank and the emerging ferns are coming in. All the fronds waving in the breeze look like waves on the ocean.”
Delaware has 67 native ferns, according to Bill McAvoy, a botanist with the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. Winterthur doesn’t have all those ferns but it’s certainly got a lot. In addition to the March Bank, there are good collections of ferns in the children’s garden, Enchanted Woods; as well as in the Pinetum. And what was once a small fern collection at the Visitor’s Center has been given a big boost recently. Over the past five years, Eirhart, her staff, and volunteers have added thousands of new ferns to this area.
The University of Delaware Botanic Gardens is another great place to search for unfurling ferns now and enjoy their cooling presence later this summer. There are painted and Christmas ferns in the Dunham Garden, at the main entrance; autumn and Christmas ferns by the Creamery ice cream shop; and still more Christmas ferns in the native garden.
In shady or partial shady conditions, ferns can be the workhorse of the garden. They can be used as groundcover in places where few other plants will thrive and also spotlighted as specimen plantings, notes Barton. Most varieties are low maintenance, drought tolerant and deer resistant. A few ferns will even tolerate full sun, as long as they have adequate moisture.
On June 19, Linda Eirhart will lead a fern workshop that covers the basics of fern botany and cultivation as well as an introduction to the best ferns for this area. 1:30 p.m.-3:30 p.m. Winterthur Museum and Gardens. To register, call 888-4600.
Article by Margo McDonough
Photo by Danielle Quigley