Down to earth — I heart footed ferns

Originally published January 21, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast Life. 

I read recently that, just as gardeners should learn the lay of the land for at least a year before starting a garden, a new homeowner should move in before repainting. Good advice I would have been much too impatient to heed back when my carpenter and I first took possession of a purple living room and a yard like a blank slate. But while I enjoy moving plants around and changing the garden with every better idea, repainting is a tedious chore. I’ve had to change the color of my living room walls twice now. I didn’t find the right color until I started growing a bear’s paw fern and watched how the afternoon light moved through it.

For a long time I lacked the confidence to grow ferns as houseplants. One after another—a maidenhair, mother fern, and table fern—succumbed to quick and demoralizing deaths. I assumed that my house must not be humid enough, despite the contrary evidence of perennially fogged windows. I thought that until I lived in a rainforest or a shaded greenhouse with drains in the floors, I’d never be able to meet their cultural requirements.

But I have a thing for ferns. The way new fronds uncurl like the primordial creatures they are…The shape of mature fronds in silhouette…The candy-button-like dots of spore-producing sori on the fertile fronds’ undersides…The memory of grade-school science lessons about one of the more fascinating ways plants reproduce…And I’m always game for a challenge. I kept bringing them home and I’m glad I did because it turns out footed ferns are the ferns for me.

Rabbit's foot fern (Davallia fejeensis)
Rabbit’s foot fern (Davallia fejeensis)

Footed ferns are so called because the fronds emerge from an epiphytic criss-cross of fuzz covered rhizomes spilling over the soil’s surface, and the tips do resemble paws if you let your imagination run wild. Rabbit’s foot fern (Davallia fejeensis) rhizomes might bring to mind the luridly dyed severed rabbit’s foot key chains we carried in our pockets for luck during the 1970s (what a disgusting fad that was). I prefer to creep myself out by imagining a nest of tarantulas instead. So cool. The fronds, by contrast, are elegantly lacy with deeply cut bronzy leaflets (called pinnae in botany-speak) that become deep green with maturity.

Naked rabbit’s foot fern (Polypodium formosanum) is also known as caterpillar fern, worm fern, grub fern, and E.T. fern because its finger-like sea-foam-green rhizomes have no hairy scales. But they do have creepy appendages that help anchor the plant to its host, or in the case of mine, hug an adjacent piece of souvenir driftwood and root into a neighboring begonia. Worm fern’s chartreuse rickrack fronds arch gracefully from all the oddity at its feet.

My bear's paw fern (Phlebodium aureum 'Blue Star') really ties the room together...
My bear’s paw fern (Phlebodium aureum ‘Blue Star’) really ties the room together…

The superstar in my household is a bear’s paw fern (Phlebodium aureum ‘Blue Star’) with wavy fronds so glaucous I was inspired to paint my living room pumpkin orange to bring out their blue. Its rhizomes are much thicker, more bear-like than the others, but are taking their time to lumber over the pot edges.

The best thing about footed ferns, aside from the coolness of their weirdness, is that they’re forgiving. They do require humidity—I keep a rabbit’s foot fern in the bathroom and the worm fern in an open terrarium—but they can tolerate much more winter dryness than, say, a maidenhair. They don’t seem to be as temperamental about watering either. The soil may go dry between drenchings and for that I use the shower once per week. And as long as they don’t get direct sunlight during the spring and summer, all is well. During the winter, east windows are prime real estate, as are shelves that catch a little afternoon sun, perhaps with a complementary color on the walls behind to bring out the best in their silhouette.

Do you grow ferns as houseplants? Which ones? Have they inspired any interior design changes?

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