Water-wise yet luxuriant ferns might sound contradictory. After all, don’t ferns and their flowy green fronds spread on wet forest floors and need constant spritzing when grown inside?
Yet numerous ferns are native to Southern California and the Southwest, and they don’t need constant water to survive and thrive.
Besides, ferns look good in many different types of gardens: whether woodland or modern, eclectic or Mediterranean, native or formal -- ferns add drama to all. It’s a simple choice for maximum effect.
“Ferns offer delicacy, movement and a distinctive texture to a garden," says Cassy Aoyagi, president of FormLA Landscaping, a sustainable Southern California landscape company. “They can bring that same vertical height as a mid-level shrub but with a much more whimsical aesthetic.”
It’s a shame, she says, that these “charming ferns” are often overlooked among the thousands of plants native to Los Angeles and California: They’ve “adapted to our climate over millions of years” and hold their own in drought without artificial fertilizers and pesticides.
“One thing to remember, and as a word of caution,” says Ron Vanderhoff, general manager of Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar. “Dryish conditions are not the same as no water or xeric conditions.” Most native ferns will need some level of watering, so speak with a knowledgeable gardening expert before you buy and plant.
Here are a few ferns that can work well in drought conditions, the new normal in Southern California:
Woodwardia fimbriata Giant Chain fern
Sometimes called the “California Chain fern," this massive fern is native to California and the western U.S. Semi-drought tolerant if planted in shade, it gets its adaptability to drought by an extensive root system.“It’s my favorite native fern,” says Susan Trindle, president of A Native Garden Design in San Juan Capistrano.
Polystichum munitum Western Sword fern
A clumping fern native to the western U.S., it grows from 1 to 5 feet high, depending on heat and moisture. Some consider that it looks its best in cooler coastal weather as opposed to inland heat. “I love the Western Sword fern,” says Aoyagi. “Not only is it drought tolerant but it spears quickly and consistently. Aesthetically, it’s a smart addition to a rustic or contemporary garden.”
Nephrolepis obliterata Kimberly Queen
A favorite formal fern of Don DeLano, journal editor of the Los Angeles Fern Society International, it will grow outdoors in Southern California in full sun to full shade. The more sun, the more water needed, but in heavy shade it can tolerate quite a bit of drought when established. “For that graceful, slightly to more fully weeping look, just seeing a Nephrolepis fern in a container on a top of a pedestal brings ‘Downton Abbey’ to mind.”
Polypodium californicum California Polypody fern
Another western U.S. native, it especially loves growing on rocks and tree branches. It needs moisture in winter and spring and then goes dormant in summer. It can be kept evergreen with additional summer water, though that may limit its growth, says DeLano. “It can look a bit sad in summer and fall when things dry out, but it’ll bounce back again the next season,” explains Vanderhoff.
Dryopteris filix-mas Male fern
Native to North America, it is a hardy, tough fern, tolerant of many conditions including almost full coastal sun and very brightly lighted inland valleys, and tolerates times of less water. It unfolds from light chartreuse to dark emerald green. Says DeLano: “When more water is available, the new fronds that emerge in the fall and winter replace those that are drought damaged.” Vanderhoff also suggests a coastal native species, Dryopteris arguta, or Wood fern.
Cyrtomium falcatum Holly fern
An especially rugged and durable compact fern, “it has broader leaves than most ferns, but is tough as nails,” says Vanderhoff. “It’s a bit slow to get going, but once it does, it is beautiful.” Adapting well to arid shade, its leathery holly-like leaflets are called pinnae and help sustain it during drier conditions.
Pellaea andromedifolia Coffee fern
A California native fern, this is semi-evergreen in cooler areas where there is summer moisture, and when grown in containers. DeLano says it’s best to plant this type of fern next to large boulders or rocks. It goes semi-dormant in summer and fall (fronds darken in color and shrivel up) but will return just fine and re-expand with fall and winter moisture. “It’s a delicate looking fern that is actually quite rugged,” says Vanderhoff.