Different Types of Ferns

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Most ferns fare best where there's plenty of moisture and shade.
Most ferns fare best where there's plenty of moisture and shade. (Image: Purestock/Purestock/Getty Images)

The image of lush ferns in the undergrowth of a warm, shady forest is a common one, but gardeners whose local conditions are neither particularly warm nor especially shady still have options for including ferns in their gardens. Within the wide range of fern species, there are ferns that will grow in practically every location.

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Shade-Loving Ferns

Almost all ferns do well in areas of part shade where they're protected from the harshness of direct sunlight, but some species grow especially well in areas of dense shade. These ferns, whose native habitats are usually under woodland canopies, don't do well in full sun, but they can thrive in shade that's too much for most other plants. The Western maidenhair fern (Adiantum aleuticum), for example, is a shade-loving native of western North America, ranging from Alaska to Mexico. It's hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 to 9.

Sun-Tolerant Ferns

In contrast to the shade-loving ferns, some fern species are relatively tolerant of sunlight. Although they're still likely to do better in partial shade, these species can handle a level of sun exposure that might make other species wither. The lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) is a sun-tolerant native of North America, but for it to handle the heat from direct sun, it needs to have its feet in consistently moist soil. It is hardy in USDA zones 4 to 8.

Moisture-Loving Ferns

While most ferns prefer, or even require, consistently moist soil, some species are tolerant of soil conditions that cross over from the merely moist to the truly wet. The native habitat of these species is often in wet or marshy areas along the edges of woodland streams or other bodies of water, and they can handle having their feet wet more than many other plants can. Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) is an impressive specimen -- with broad, 3-foot-long fronds -- that has no problem growing in wet soils. It's hardy in USDA zones 3 to 7.

Drought-Tolerant Ferns

Because of their need for shade and moisture, most fern species are not well suited to Southern gardens where summers are hot and rain may be infrequent. Some species, however, can tolerate drought better than others and may be able to survive in a relatively arid climate. Holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum) has glossy, leathery leaflets that allow it to retain moisture better than other species, so it can get by with less water. It is hardy in USDA zones 6 to 10.

Cold-Hardy Ferns

Gardeners in northern climates can have ferns in their gardens too, thanks to species that are able to survive through even long, harsh winters. The Western maidenhair fern is hardy even in the northern reaches of the lower 48 states, and the Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum) is another species that's hardy in USDA zones 3 to 8.

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