Xeric Ferns

The ferns of the world's drylands offer a total contrast to the stereotypical concept of fern. Seeing them growing in the wild is an amazing sight indeed. One of my earliest exposures was at a remote place called Bumblebee 4 (no, I do not know why), Arizona. In a dry gulch that would serve as a site for a cowboy's last gasp in a western movie were assorted ferns nestled up against boulders. Here their roots reached deeply down for the minimal water source with the boulder providing a cool root run, a touch of shade, and a drop or two of morning dew. These xerics are your cheilanthes and pellaeas and their near relatives. Many are cloaked in hairs and scales to help prevent water loss. Others have an undercoat of white or yellow farinose wax. To the xeric enthusiast these protective traits add immensely to the ferns' beauty and charm.

Not surprisingly these citizens of the desert do not settle down with ease in cultivation (which may help explain why we all want to have them to display). Soil with excellent drainage is essential and the mix must be coarse. I use lots of well-washed pumice, bark, and granite grit, with just enough loamy compost to hold it all together.

Heavy fur coats cloak xeric Notholaena lanuginosa in the Brotherton garden.
Author's half whiskey barrel filled with cheilanthes, showing the new planting in 1997 (center) and the resultant growth in 1999 (left).

Dryland garden at the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley.

In addition, these ferns need good air circulation and, more critically, protection from winter wet. I have mine planted in half whiskey barrels under the eaves on the south side of the house. They get full sun in the winter and light shade in the heat of the summer. They do need watering, however, especially in their new growth. Cheilan-thes will let you know by curling up when dry. Fortunately, unlike some of their shade-land counterparts—maidenhairs and osmundas come to mind—they will revive with a gentle shot from the hose.

In California and southwestern gardens the xerics can be treated like ordinary rock garden plants without concern for winter wet. The University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley, a must-see garden for all fern lovers, has a remarkable display. Look for the ferns in among the cactus.

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