Northern maidenhair, Maidenhair Fern, Five Fingered Fern
Near my home is a large hillside that is festooned with Maidenhair fern. It is the understory to mixed hardwood trees. I pass by it every day and I always turn my eyes to the lush shroud of ethereal green fernery and imagine wondrous things are happening under that verdant cloak.
In my world, this particular fern has no equal. It posses delicate fronds, that are roughly 20” tall, atop dark, shiny stems. In early spring, wine red fiddleheads appear. I get excited when I see the fronds arise in clusters from the creeping rootstock. The feather-like fronds open horizontally in a nearly perfect circle, not unlike a dinner plate. No other native fern posses this unique fan-like pinnate pattern.
The roots are black and wiry and colonize in rich, moist, acidic, well-drained soils. Perennial in nature, they prefer cool forests or semi-shaded areas and especially enjoy northern exposures. Rocky seeps and springs are of particular interest to this fern. Rain seems to bounce right off of them; they stand quite well in driving rain. This is a good quality in the forest, and in the garden, and in nearly every station of life – as one must stand tall and firm in the deluge that comes. Toads and frogs and all sorts of little creatures thrive in the undercover of these ferns, promising bounteous expeditions into the wild.
Hardy in zones 4-8, this American native plant is a good bet for the home shade garden. It has low drought tolerance. Copious amounts of added humus will hold water in the soil. It is not hard to make more plants by rhizome division in early spring, or in late fall from spores. It is best to divide the roots during fiddlehead stage. If this opportunity is missed, I recommend waiting until the spores mature in late summer and fall. Growing from spores is fun, easy and will yield an ungodly amount of progeny; resulting in making one feel like the scientific propagator supreme. Tap spores onto sterile potting mix, then mist and keep covered with a clear plastic lid. Here is a great use for all of those little plastic berry boxes! Keep them over the winter in a cool place away from direct light. Keep them moist but not soggy. Transplant in the garden on 1’ centers in the early spring where they are to grow.