Among the oldest plants on the planet, ferns likely appeared 420 to 360 million years ago. Several species of these seedless, vascular plants grow in Michigan's warm summers and snow-covered winters, and some Michigan ferns can tolerate sun. In Michigan, the growing season extends from early May through early October, and the state covers U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 6.
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Ferns for Moist, Shady Spots
A native throughout Michigan, maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) is a perennial in USDA zones 3 through 8. This fern grows 12 to 28 inches tall and has thin, dark-colored stems and bright green fronds. This fern prefers partial or full shade. Maidenhair fern thrives on moist soil, but will survive limited drought conditions.
Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) is native to Michigan's upper peninsula and the southern half of the lower peninsula. It grows in USDA zones 2 through 6, and grows throughout Michigan. Ostrich fern grows 4 to 6 feet tall in the wild, but usually stays on the shorter end of that scale in home gardens. It grows best and grows the largest in nutrient-rich soil that stays constantly moist. Partial or full shade is best.
Ferns for Sunnier Spots
Native to Michigan's lower peninsula, sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) grows in USDA zones 2 through 10. Because it is so cold hardy, this fern will grow in gardens on the upper peninsula as well. Sensitive fern grows 24 to 30 inches tall, and prefers partial shade with moist soil. It is more tolerant of sun than the maidenhair fern, but less tolerant of drought.
Cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) grows in USDA zones 2 through 10, and will grow well in both the upper and lower peninsulas. It gets its name from the distinctive cinnamon-colored fronds that grow alongside the larger green fronds. Cinnamon fern is one of the best ferns for sun in Michigan and grows in full sun or partial shade, but it needs constant moisture if planted in the sun. In the shade, it will tolerate soil that occasionally dries out. This fern grows 2 to 4 feet tall.
Ferns for Color
Varieties of lady fern (Athryium spp.) grow best in partial to full shade and moist soil, though they will tolerate some drought. The 'Lady in Red' cultivar (Athyrium filix-femina 'Lady in Red') grows in USDA zones 2 through 9. The foliage of this fern features burgundy-red stripes on light green leaves.
Other varieties, like the Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum) are not as hardy. This fern grows in USDA zones 4 through 9 and will not survive winters in parts of northern Michigan. The foliage on this fern is silvery-gray, green and burgundy.
Ferns for Containers
Most Michigan ferns do best when grown in a garden bed rather than in containers. Even for moisture-loving ferns, always use a container that has drainage holes.
Maidenhair fern grows well in containers and you can grow it as a houseplant. When growing this fern in containers, high humidity and constant soil moisture are essential. It does best when placed near a north window.
Holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum) grows in USDA zones 6 through 11, so it can only be grown outdoors year-round in southern parts of coastal Michigan. It works well as a houseplant, and requires less humidity than the maidenhair fern. For this and other indoor ferns, use a potting mix that contains at least 50 percent peat moss.