Dryopteris

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Wood ferns, buckler ferns

Within the fern community, Dryopteris is a proportionately huge genus with more than 225 species and 77 hybrids at last count. They include vast numbers of elegant and functional species and cultivars ranging in size from dwarfs for rock gardens to dramatic and majestic behemoths that are the sentinels of the landscape. Most prefer rich, acid soils and once established are quite low maintenance, drought tolerant, and accepting of dry soils (with my companion plants, including shrubs, wilting before dryopteris show signs of stress). The typical Dry-opteris display features a shuttlecock of arching deciduous or evergreen fronds originating from erect or branching rhizomes. Plants may produce a single foliar rosette from an un-branched rhizome or a collection of crowns from a branching rhizome. Many species are very challenging to identify, and continuing research leads all too frequently to the name changes that beleaguer and bedevil gardeners.

The emergence of signature scaly fiddleheads and stipes, with exceptional ornamental value, bring buoyancy to the joy and promise of springtime. The sturdy stipes are grooved with three to nine

Vibrant color on the fresh fronds of Doodia aspera in the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley.

Sturdy and leathery low fronds of Doodia media.

Drynaria quercifolia with its oaklike brown lower foliage. Photo by George Schenk.

Vibrant color on the fresh fronds of Doodia aspera in the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley.

Sturdy and leathery low fronds of Doodia media.

Drynaria quercifolia with its oaklike brown lower foliage. Photo by George Schenk.

Dryopteris erythrosora sori.

vascular bundles arranged in variations on an open C pattern (with large bundles at the end points). Blades range from once-pinnate, simple structures to finely divided feathers of greenery. The spores are medium brown to dark brownish-black. The sori are round and, with very few exceptions (Dryopteris scottii and D. gymnosora, for example), are covered when fresh with a kidney-shaped indusium. With time and weather these can disintegrate and appear deceptively round.

When multiple crowns develop, dryopteris are easy to divide with a judicious slice of a sharp spade or sturdy knife. They are also easily propagated from spores. Harvesting will bring copious amounts of chaff along with the spore drop, so extracting the spores from the chaff, with its potential for contamination, is especially important for success. Many species are apogamous (reproducing asexually directly from the pro-thallus) and, with prompt spore germination, all are excellent and encouraging options for those first tentative ventures into propagation or the continuing education of the addicted.

The name Dryopteris is from the Greek drys, oak or forest, and pteris, fern, in reference to its once common occurrence in oak woods. (To carry the thread back farther, the dryads of Greek mythology were the nymphs that inhabited oaks.) Common names are wood fern in North America and, more imaginatively, buckler fern (in deference to the shape of the indusium) in Britain and Europe. In earlier times it was classified under Aspidium or Lastrea.

These are primarily ferns of worldwide temperate regions, with a concentration of natives in the moist woodlands of eastern North America, Europe, Japan, and Asia. Some of the most desirable imports from Japan and Asia unfurl in fashionably warm rainbow shades with pigments ranging from coppery red through amber. Not surprisingly, many of these glamorous options are supplanting the North American natives in commerce; however, the natives are reliable options and excellent selections for those embarking on their first cautious ventures into the marvelous world of fern gardening. Meanwhile, further botanical expeditions continue to introduce exciting new-to-horticulture temptations regularly, guaranteeing interesting selections well into the future. Unfortunately, not all of these adapt to garden settings in por-

Dryopteris filix-mas 'Linearis Polydactyla', an old British cultivar, remains popular today. Kennar garden.

tions of Middle America where the summers are either too hot or too humid, or both. Natives of high Himalayan elevations are especially likely to find the transition challenging. However, with microclimates varying from area to area and with the imaginative efforts of individual gardeners no species should be automatically excluded from consideration without a creative trial. "I consider every plant hardy until I have killed it myself... at least three times" (Tony Avent, Plant Delights Nursery).

European species, especially Dryopteris affinis, D. dilatata, and the circumboreal D. filix-mas, are noted for their tendency to produce a variety of sports (that is, genetic variations). These were prized introductions reaching the zenith of their popularity as well as great monetary value in the British Victorian fern heyday. Lowe (1908) lists some 52 varieties of D. filix-mas alone. They still inspire a passionate following especially for the collector wanting something "different." It has been reported, however, that "the stronger the genetic variation from a normal appearing plant, the poorer the fern's performance" in hot and humid summer climates (Archer 2005).

With their cosmopolitan distribution, dryopteris have a history of applications in folk medicine as well as practical uses born of functional necessity. The latter ranged from using

Dryopteris affinis 'Crispa' in the Bradner garden.

Chubby unfurling fronds of Dryopteris affinis 'Crispa Gracilis'.

Dryopteris affinis 'Crispa' in the Bradner garden.

tinctures of burned fern ashes for green coloring in wine glasses (viva la France) to dyes for fabrics. Medicinal uses, especially for the universally available D. filix-mas were varied and plentiful, ranging from unappetizing to those with potentially terminal effects.

Chubby unfurling fronds of Dryopteris affinis 'Crispa Gracilis'.

with their tiny glands, smell like new mown hay when crushed, hence the common name. Botanical details separate this from the similar Dryopteris dilatata, which has stipe scales that are brown with dark centers rather than the uniformly brown stipe scales of D. aemula.

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