Deciduous Ferns (Royal Fern, River Fern, & Japanese Painted Fern)

Hi, I am Millie Davenport, a horticulture extension agent with the Clemson University Home & Garden Information Center.

Today we are going to look at Deciduous Ferns.

Today we here in the South Carolina Botanical Gardens and we are looking at a few deciduous hardy ferns. Basically, deciduous just means that these plants lose their foliage during the late fall, winter months and they reemerge with new growth in the following spring. Now, we are going to look at a couple of different species. And, the first one we are going to look is one of the ones that has the most potential to get the tallest.

This is the Royal Fern, Osmunda regalis. This plant is a native fern and in fact at first glance it doesn’t even look like a fern. It looks like possibly a member of the legume family. But it is actually a fern. The Royal Fern is really nice for foundation plantings or background plantings because of its nice height. Although here you can see it is much shorter. So, it is going to be really nice toward the border of your garden. One thing about the Royal Fern is that it has a clumping root system. So, it has a massive clumping root system, it does not spread. This fern has a nice, really showy fertile frond. The tips are the fertile portion where the spores are housed in these little capsules called sori. All of these kind of give the appearance of almost a flower on the fern. So, that gives it another common name called the flowering fern. The Royal Fern will really do well in a nice wet boggy area, part sun to full shade location.

Now, here we are with the River Fern. This is really a nice fern that is also a native to South Carolina. It is going to get a little bit taller than the Royal Fern. You can tell that this plant is actually happier in this environment, because it is much taller than the Royal Fern that we just looked at. The River Fern has these really nice arching, soft textured fronds, about 2 to 3 feet long. You can even see some of the fronds unfurling here. It is really nice to watch the fiddleheads open up. The height of this plant also makes it a really good plant for foundation plantings or background plantings in your shade garden. The nice thing about the River Fern is that it does spread by rhizomes, so it is not a “clumper” like the Royal Fern that we just looked at. It is going to take off and it’s going to send underground roots and shoots through the soil surface and send up new fronds. The River Fern is native to the coastal region of South Carolina although it will grow throughout the whole state in all regions. Where you typically will see this plant is growing on a rocky slope in a wooded environment.

This is the Japanese Painted Fern, Athyrium nipponicum ‘Pictum’. The really cool thing about this is that it has this beautiful, silvery gray foliage that also has kind of purplish stems and darker shades of green as well. Now these fronds are going to reach around 18-24 inches tall. You do want to have these in a part shade area, if it gets too much sun then this plant is going to wash out and not be quite as beautiful in color. The Japanese Painted Fern is kept adequately moist all summer long, then you are going to continue to get beautiful little fronds emerging from this plant as you can see here.

Whether you are choosing the Royal Fern, River Fern or the Japanese Painted Fern they are all going to do well in an area that has part sun or full shade in that area. You want to make sure that you amend the soil with leaf litter or some type of organic matter to help retain some moisture in that area. It’s a great way to add different colors, different textures like the coarse texture of the Royal Fern or the finer texture of the River Fern. They will work great in any of your shade gardens.

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at or 1-888-656-9988.

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