Thursday, June 3, 2021

Ferns As Groundcovers

Strolling pathways and lanes among magnificent homes on Kiawah Island, I was impressed by the effective use of ornamental groundcovers in the landscapes.

Paths there were many,
Winding through palmy fern, and rushes fenny,
And ivy banks; all leading pleasantly
To a wide lawn, whence one could only see
Stems thronging all around between the swell
Of turf and slanting branches: who could tell
The freshness of the space of heaven above,
Edg'd round with dark tree tops?...
- John Keats - From Endymion: Book I

The ferns were among the loveliest. What makes them so are their rich textures, lush beauty, and low maintenance requirements. Ferns, in fact, could be an elegant answer to your own groundcover needs.

Before delving into the subject of ferns as groundcovers, let's consider the reasons for using groundcovers.

Groundcovers (or ground covers) are going to occur in most climates quite naturally. Just above the soil layer and below native shrubs and trees, herbaceous plants sprout and spread. They are important in the ecosystem for erosion control, providing and balancing plant diversity, conserving soil moisture, and healing the land after some sort of disturbance.

Many natural groundcover species are not all that attractive. Some are harmful; poison ivy comes to mind. Creative gardeners, however, have learned to substitute more desirable plant species to achieve those worthy ends that nature would otherwise accomplish.

So, that brings us back to the subject of ferns as groundcovers. Ferns will not serve as lawn substitutes for they grow too tall and don't survive frequent foot traffic, but it you want plants that do whatever else that groundcovers should do, require minimal maintenance, and are deer-proof, ferns could be your plants of choice.  Choosing the right fern is as simple as identifying the area you want to cover and selecting a suitable species to do it.

Once established, fern groundcovers are very impressive. Here are a few to consider.

Southern Sword Fern

Nephrolepis cordifolia

Nephrolepis cordifolia - aka Southern Sword Fern - is among the most widely used ferns in southeastern U.S. landscapes. They're tough as nails and very easy to grow.  This evergreen species presents upright sword-shaped fronds with closely spaced leaflets. They spread by runners, and tolerate drier, poorer soil than most ferns, especially in shaded areas. They'll also thrive in full sun with sufficient irrigation.

But first, take note. Southern Sword Fern is not native to the U.S., but to Australia and Asia. Therefore, it is sometimes considered to be an invasive species because it competes with native groundcover species - i.e. weeds. But given that it does suppress weeds, it seems like an ideal solution to the weed problem if used judiciously. I'll leave it to you to decide. 

Southern Sword Ferns grows to 18" tall. Recommended soil pH from 5.6 to 7.8. They're cold-hardy only in USDA climate zones 9b - 11, so they're of limited use.

Hay-scented Fern

Dennstaedtia punctilobula

Dennstaedtia punctilobula, also known as Hay-scented fern is a North American native found from Quebec to Georgia, and westward to Missouri and Arkansas. That's USDA climate zones 3 - 8. 

It is deciduous, but the fall foliage turns to a beautiful golden yellow or chartreuse (hay-colored) in fall. Grow it in full shade - not deep shade - to partial shade in soil with average moisture. 

The secret to success with any plant is to approximate it's native habitat in your own landscape. Dennstaedtia thrives in rich, deep, loamy soil with average moisture in deciduous hardwood forests.

Hay-scented fern is best propagated by planting rhizomes in well-prepared soil. It's reasonably drought-tolerant, and, of course, deer won't eat them.

Christmas Fern

Polystichum acrosticoides

This evergreen beauty is one of our most useful native ferns. Polystichum acrosticoides really stands out in winter. Also known as Christmas fern, the glossy foliage has been gathered since colonial times for Christmas greenery. I never fail to point out to my grandchildren that the leaflets are shaped like elves' shoes. 

It can be found growing naturally in shady hardwood forests from Quebec to Florida, and westward to Texas (USDA climate zones 3 - 9). Rich, loamy, slightly moist soil is ideal. Nevertheless, Christmas fern is reasonably drought tolerant. They are often available in 3-1/2 inch pots and as bare root crowns.

Autumn Fern

Autumn Fern - aka Dryopteris erythrosora - is an Asian beauty that is becoming very popular. Evergreen fronds grow 18" to 24", and newly emerging foliage has a burgundy tone. Stunning! It's cold hardy, too, thriving from USDA climate zones 5 - 8. The delicate appearance belies its toughness - so tough, in fact, that it is often used in public gardens, squares and avenue median strips, so long as the site is in partial shade to full shade.

Southern Shield Fern

Dryopteris ludoviciana

So, what if you need a fern for a sunny location? Look no further than Southern Shield fern or Southern Wood fern - aka Dryopteris ludoviciana. This gorgeous North American native is found from Kentucky to Florida, and westward to Texas. That's USDA climate zones 6 - 10. Foliage is evergreen, too. It's a big one, growing up to 48" in height! Average, slightly moist soil with pH ranging from 6.1 to 7.5 will be ideal.

There are, of course, many more ferns that could be mentioned. Some are, in my opinion, a bit too small to serve as effective ground covers. Others are gigantic. Many prefer habitats too specific to be of general interest.

I hope that these ferns I've mentioned will provide you with some inspiring choices for your own ground cover needs.

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Wednesday, June 2, 2021

FAQ: On Planting Hay-scented Ferns - Dennstaedtia puntilobula

Hay-scented ferns

How does one plant Hay-scented ferns? Inquiring minds want to know. I posted an instructional video on the topic, but it doesn't cover all the bases. Here are a couple of good questions:

Q. The video shows green fronds however the picture that accompanies the web page does not. How can I tell which is "up" if there are no fronds emerging? Thanks!

A. The rhizomes are laid horizontally into a shallow trench. There may be some new shoots emerging from the rhizomes when you receive them, which will help you determine which side is up. Even if you get it "wrong", they'll come out alright. But the correct side should be self-evident.

Hay-scented fern rhizome

Q. In your video you cover the rhizomes with potting soil.  I have a good quantity of well composted cow manure. Could I cover the rhizomes with the compost and then a layer of shredded bark to discourage weeds?

A. High quality potting soil should not have weed seeds in it, so the only weed seeds would be in your native soil surrounding the area. If you decide to use compost, I suggest you mix it with native soil, but that presents the potential weed problem. If you cover the rhizomes too deeply with soil/compost/bark, they might have difficulty emerging, if at all. So, care must be taken for that reason. Depending on  your situation, you will probably have to pull some weeds either way, but probably fewer if you use a very high quality potting soil to cover the rhizomes.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Groovin' in the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

Springtime is a groovy time to visit the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. Though we’d never been there before, I felt like I had for this hit tune from younger days kept playing in my head.

Mendocino, Mendocino
Where life's such a groove
You'll blow your mind in the mornin'
We used to walk through the park
Make love along the way in Mendocino

The album, Mendocino, by the Sir Douglas Quintet, came out in 1969. Lyrics were by Doug Sahm.

In fact, the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens is a child of the ‘60s. It was founded in 1961 by Ernest Schoefer – a retired nurseryman – and his wife, Betty. Ernest's experience in horticulture enabled him to discover just the right combination of water, mild coastal climate and ideal soil conditions for his dream garden. The Gardens on 47 acres opened to the public in 1966. The Schoefers maintained the Gardens until 1978.

The garden is more or less divided into sections featuring particular plant groupings. The best known and most popular is the Rhododendron garden. Though we visited in May, most of the fragrant blossoms were still in bloom. These delightful shrubs are native to Southeast Asia and the Himalayas. Schoefer realized that the foggy northern California coast would be an ideal environment for them. 

Many of the older Rhododendron hybrids are no longer available to the nursery trade. The Gardens may be the only place where they can still be enjoyed.

The Perennial Garden was delightful with its mix of lilies, herbs, and annuals. The cacti and succulents were among my favorites. 

Other lovely collections include old-fashioned roses, Heaths and Heathers, camellias, and a natural area in which various endangered species thrive. Those who have the time and energy to walk a bit further will enjoy a path through a pine forest to a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

In addition to your camera, be sure to bring binoculars. Bird watchers will be amply rewarded for their patience.

Here are some more photographs from our "walk through the park."

Geranium spp.

If anyone can tell me what this is, I'd appreciate it.

Garden scene

Helianthemum 'Fire Dragon'

Aquilegia spp.

Fuschia spp.

Acer palmatum 'Holland Special'

Persicaria capitata

Bergenia cordifolia

Rhododendron 'The Honorable Jean Marie de Montague'

Limnanthes douglasii


Sedum dendroideum

Aeonium undulatum

Grevillea 'Fanfare'

Leucospermum cordifolium

Heath and Heather collection

Campanula poscharskyana

Garden scene

No matter the time of year, you'll feel like groovin' in the Gardens. There's always something to tempt you. 

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Sunday, May 16, 2021

Charming Plants for Wedding Favors and Table Decorations

Wedding table

Shouldn't thoughtful hostesses give a little something to their wedding guests to remember the occasion? But, of course! Living plants can grow in their gardens, reminding them of you for years to come. What's more, the meaning behind them taken from "the language of flowers" will lend them special significance. Here are a few selections from our offering that will be very memorable and long-lasting.


Candytuft (Iberis) whispers joy, sweetness, and beauty even in the face of adversity.

Catmint speaks of intoxicating love, fertility, and future happiness.


Coreopsis promises wealth and cheerfulness.

Chrysanthemum/Dendranthema assure friendship, love, and all the best wishes.


Dianthus tells of love, affection, gratitude, admiration, and hints of a little bit of whimsy thrown in for good measure.

Japanese Painted Fern

Ferns wish for good luck, riches, happiness, strong family bonds, and hope for future generations.

Goldenstar bets on good luck and healthy ambition.


Ivy (Hedera) declares eternal fidelity.

Moneywort hopes for wealth and life-long happiness.

Creeping Phlox

Phlox symbolizes harmony, unity in marriage.

Rudbeckia is full of bright encouragement.

St. John’s Wort declares God’s design for marriage and home.


Thyme is a symbol of healing, young love, romance and courage.

Verbena signifies romance, pleasant memories, happiness, personal creativity, and protection.


Veronica/Speedwell hopes for healing, recovery from broken hearts, and joyfulness.

Vinca expresses nostalgia, benevolence, and purity of heart.


Yarrow (Achillea) speaks of love, healing a broken heart, courage and inspiration.

Yellow Archangel

Yellow Archangel prays for wisdom, courage, and protection in the years ahead.

These can be treasured reminders of that festive day in the life of your adorable bride and groom.

Visit for current availability. For pre-orders, contact us for details. We'll do our best to make your special day unforgettable. 

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Springtime, Loving, And The Meaning Of Flowers

Now is the month of maying,

When merry lads are playing,

Fa la la la la la la la la,

Fa la la la la la la lah.

Each with his bonny lass

Upon the greeny grass.

Fa la la la la la la la la, etc...

 The Spring, clad all in gladness,

Doth laugh at Winter's sadness,

Fa la la, etc...

And to the bagpipe's sound

The nymphs tread out their ground.

Fa la la, etc...

Fie then! why sit we musing,

Youth's sweet delight refusing?

Fa la la, etc...

Say, dainty nymphs, and speak,

Shall we play barley break?

Fa la la etc…

When springtime comes and flowers begin to bloom, frisky hearts turn to thoughts of love, gifts of affection, and perhaps even plans for the future. As the old nursery rhyme (or taunt) went:

[She] and [he] sitting in a tree,

K-I-S-S-I-N G.

First comes love,

Then comes marriage,

Then comes baby in a baby carriage.

It’s the natural progression of things.

Gifts are often plucked straight from the garden – or purchased – to express deepest feelings, and, traditionally, those gifts have had special meanings. In fact, an entire language of flowers developed over the centuries. It’s called floriography. With the language of flowers, friends and lovers have been able to express themselves without words, which, for sake of modesty or or other reasons, are sometimes better left unsaid.

The language of flowers is also helpful for expressing sympathy, disappointment, timidity – the whole range of human emotions.

Whether intended for deepest heartfelt expressions, occasional gifts or wedding favors, here are a few to consider.

Astilbe – Dedication and patience.

Yarrow (Achillea) – Love, healing a broken heart, courage and inspiration.

Ivy (Hedera) – Eternal fidelity, strong attachment.

Ferns – Luck, riches, happiness, family bonds, hope for future generations.

Candytuft (Iberis) – Joy, sweetness, and beauty in the face of adversity.

Coreopsis – Wealth and cheerfulness.

Daylily – Depending on the color, they can symbolize purity, innocence (white); devotion, motherly love, joy, beauty and courage (orange and yellow).

Chrysanthemum/Dendranthema – Friendship, love, well-wishing, death and grief (white).

Carnation – Depending on the color, they can symbolize purity, innocence, death (white); life and love (red); gratitude (pink); rejection (yellow).

Dianthus – Love, affection, gratitude, admiration, whimsy.

Goldenstar – Good luck, ambition.

Plumbago – Hope and well-wishing.

Iris – Trust, courage, hope.

Yellow Archangel – Wisdom, courage, protection.

Lily-of-the-Valley – Good luck in marriage, happiness, love.

Liriope – Nymph-like, capriciousness.

CreepingJenny/Moneywort – Wealth, happiness,

Catmint – Love, fertility, happiness.

Phlox – Harmony, unity.

Rudbeckia – Encouragement.

St. John’s Wort – God’s design.

Thyme – Healing, young love, romance, courage.

Verbena – Romance, pleasant memories, happiness, creativity, protection.

Veronica/Speedwell – Healing, recovery, joyfulness.

Vinca – Nostalgia, benevolence, purity.

With so many flowers to choose from, you can express all your loving thoughts without speaking a word.

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Tuesday, April 27, 2021

A Spring Walk Around Pandapas Pond

 Pandapas Pond is a lovely "day-use" area near Blacksburg, VA located in the mountains within Jefferson National Forest. The pond itself covers about 8 acres. An easy-access trail goes around it. Other trails nearby provide opportunities for hiking, mountain biking and horse-back riding. I like to visit a few times each year to enjoy whatever plants catch my eye. My most recent stroll around the pond revealed these little delights.

Alliaria petiolata

Alliaria petiolata is also known as Garlic mustard, Poor man's mustard, and Sauce-alone. It's native to much of Europe and Asia, and has become well-established throughout most of the Eastern United States, parts of the Mid-West and Northwest. As you might expect, it's in the mustard family and it smells like garlic, so it has been used for culinary purposes for centuries. I've never eaten it myself, but think I'll try some next time I get a chance. It's so widespread, I'm sure no one will much care if you harvest some along the highways and byways. Be sure to give it a good wash before cooking.

Anemone quinquefolia

Wood Anemone (Anemone quinquefolia) is a delightful little thing, as all spring flowers are. It's not particularly showy, but I love seeing it peek through the leaf litter. It has been used as an application to stimulate the skin in cases of rheumatism and gout, and its juice has been used to remove warts and corns. It's acrid and will give you a mighty tummy ache if ingested.

Antennaria plantagifinifolia

Its name is bigger than the plant itself. Antennaria is derived from the appearance of the male flowers to insect antennae. Common names include Pussytoes and Woman's Tobacco. The rounded, club-like flowers together do remind one of a cat's foot. I've wondered about the other name, Woman's Tobacco. The little leaves seem to be too small to bother smoking, but another species - Antennaria dioica - has been used to relieve lung disorders, so that might be the association. You'll find it growing in dry, rocky soil in full sun.

Arctium minus

Arctium minus - Common Burdock or Lesser Burdock - is related to a Chinese species that is well-known for its medicinal properties. Most notably, it is detoxifying. This one has similar uses. It's said to be good for just about everything imaginable - antibacterial, antifungal, relieves gas, cures skin diseases, relieves burns and bruises, ringworms and insect bites. As with any herbal remedies, caution is advised. I've known of the leaves being eaten as cooked greens and the roots being brewed as a coffee substitute. But in my opinion, there is no substitute for real coffee.

Chimaphila maculata

Call it Spotted Pipsissewa, Spotted Wintergreen or Striped Wintergreen. I did not take this photo during my recent visit, but included it so you can see the flowers. It blooms later in summer. The plant also has multiple uses in the herbalist's medicine cabinet. It's said to reduce pain, combat bacteria, be styptic, increase perspiration, cleanse the kidneys, reduce fever, stimulate the skin, stimulate the metabolism and generally improve health. When I was a child, my dad always pointed it out to me, "That's for the kidneys." Some folks like to chew the fresh leaves for their fresh, wintergreen flavor.

Gaultheria procumbens

This is honest-to-goodness Wintergreen. Crush the leaves and sniff them. Hmmm. Good! My children and grandchildren are treated to a whiff every time I get the chance. (Someone should invent a "scratch and sniff" app.) The chemical 
methyl salicylate has the property of aspirin, so provides pain relief. Of course, there have been many other medicinal uses. I'll never forget the time my college roommate and I collected leaves, brewed them into a tea and enjoyed several cups. Then I read that copious amounts could cause vomiting, liver or kidney damage. Oops!

Goodyera pubescens

Also known as Rattlesnake Plantain, Goodyera is a delightful little orchid. Tea made from the roots is supposed to be a treatment for snakebites. In case of emergency, I'd call 9-1-1, instead. But I suppose if you were a pioneer of yesteryear, you'd rush home and brew up a few cups...if you made it back in time. The tea is also supposed to be analgesic, treat colds and kidney ailments.

Polygaloides paucifolia

It looks like an orchid, but it's not. Also known as Gaywings and Flowering Wintergreen. This is a nice little surprise to come upon among leaf litter in hardwood forests. 

Stellaria pubera

Star Chickweed is its common name. You can't miss it. This little perennial in the carnation family is in bloom almost year-around.  It's found throughout the eastern U.S. from Vermont to Florida, and even into Wisconsin. I don't know that it's useful for anything other than a subject for photography. I like it.

Tussilago farfara

Also known as Coltsfoot. See the leaf? It has been widely used in herbal medicine, especially for pulmonary problems, but can have toxic effects on the liver if ingested. My dad pointed it out whenever we chanced upon it. You'll find it in ditches and damp soil in the eastern half of the continent from Canada to Virginia and Tennessee.

Viola pedata
Viola sororia

Finally, there are the violets. V. sororia is the most common. You'll find it in moist soil, in partial shade to full sun. You might find it even in your lawn. Leaves and flowers can be eaten raw or cooked.

V. pedata - Bird's foot violet - is my favorite, by far. You'll find it in dry, rocky soil. I found it this time in the company of the Antennaria mentioned above. It has been used as a poultice applied to the brow for headaches. You can cook the young leaves, and candy the flowers.

In "the language of flowers", violets are symbols of modest admiration. If you receive a bouquet of violets, you're invited to take a chance on love.

I must note that all mention above of medicinal use is given as information in a historical context. It is not an invitation for you to treat yourself. All medicinal uses should be taken by direction of a physician. 

Well, those are the highlights of my little April stroll around Pandapas Pond. If you're in the area, be sure to visit. 

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