Fern Culture

But on St. John’s mysterious night,
Sacred to many a wizard spell, 
The time when first to human sight
Confest, the mystic fern seed fell.
I’ll seek the shaggy, fern clad hill,
Where time has delved a dreary dell,
Befitting best a hermit’s cell;
And watch ‘mid murmurs muttering stern, 
The seed departing from the fern,
Ere watchful demons can convey,
The wonder-working charm away,
And tempt the blows from arm unseen,
Should thoughts unholy intervene.
 (Anonymous medieval poem)


In medieval times ferns were believed to have mystical and magical properties; their seed and flowers were thought to be invisible. If you were in the right place at the right time, had the right charms, said the right words, preformed the right ritual, you would gain magical powers.

Only once a year, at dusk on June 24th. St. John’s Day, they would produce a tiny blue flower. At exactly midnight, they would drop their fiery golden seeds. By catching the seeds on a white cloth, you would obtain magical powers. The seed placed in your shoes would make you invisible. They helped you see into the future or back into the past, help you find lost objects or hidden treasures. Best of all, they could grant you eternal life.

Pteridophytes: Ferns and Their Allies.

The pteridophytes are the smallest of the four major plant groups within Kingdom Plantae, making up about 2% of the total world plant population. There are an estimated 12,000 species of ferns and about 1000 species of fern allies. The majority live in tropical, subtropical rain forests. In the United States, there are less than 400 native species mostly in wet, wooded areas.

Ferns and fern allies have been around over 300 million years. They seem to be the earliest plants to come out of the sea and establish themselves in inland colonies. They ruled the earth for over 100 million years at a time when the earth was a humid, subtropical, stable, seasonless climate (the Carboniferous period, the age of ferns). Giant pteridophyte forests lived and died, leaving behind the material for the fossilization of coal. 

The pteridophytes are divided into two major subgroups the true ferns and the fern-allies. The fern allies are classified into five botanical families: horsetails, clubmosses, spikemosses, quillworts, and whiskbroom.

Ferns to Start With 

 Beginners should start with well-established ferns instead of trying to raise very young plants. Good choices for the inexperienced grower are the ferns of the Davallia and Nephrolepis general because they demand very little in the way of special care and are easily grown into beautiful specimen plants. Other ferns that are easy for the beginner include the Leather fern, Rumohra adiantiformis, the Holly fern, Cyrtomium falcatum and its cultivars. Also included are the Brake ferns, Pteris argyraea, P. tremula, P. longifolia, P. cretica and its cultivars, and the Mother fern, Asplenium bulbiferum.

Soils and Growing Medium 

 In the garden, most ferns will thrive in the existing soil provided it is well-drained, although the addition of humus would be helpful in all cases where it is not present to any extent. On the other hand, container-grown plants do best as a rule in a soil-less growing medium-high in humus, but which drains well. The humus used may be wood chips or bark chips, leaf mold, peat moss, or any combination of these. The inorganic portion of the mix can be sand or perlite in sufficient quantity to provide good aeration and drainage.


 Either clay pots or plastic pots are satisfactory for ferns, and both have their advantages and disadvantages. Plastic pots are light, stay cleaner, do not collect algae as much as clay pots, and do not have to be watered as often. Clay pots provide better aeration and help to prevent the build-up of a soggy medium. With plastic pots, it is advisable to use a coarser medium and to be particularly careful not to water oftener than necessary to keep the soil just moist.


 Although ferns are shade plants, they require much stronger light than many people think. Ferns will not do well in dimly lit areas, and in many cases, will not stay alive if the light level is lower than 150 foot-candles. Indoor, they should be placed as near as possible to un-curtained windows, but without having direct sunlight strike them.


 The best time to water ferns is in the morning when the temperature is rising. In this way, any moisture on the frond will have evaporated by night. Watering later in the day will leave the fronds wet during the night and susceptible to fungus diseases. Most ferns should be watered thoroughly, but no more often than is necessary to keep the roots moist. More ferns are killed by overwatering than under-watering. 


 The unfavorable condition of dry air in the house can be alleviated to some extent by placing pans of water in the fern area or preparing a shallow container with pebbles and water, on which the fern pot is then placed. Kitchens and bathrooms usually have higher humidity than other rooms, so ferns might be placed there. Another option is to purchase more than one or two plants, put one plant outside in a humid, shady place for a week, and then rotate it with the one that is inside.


 Ferns need nutrients like all plants, but their requirements are considerably less than most other plants. Ferns growing in a garden with fertile soil may never need to be fertilized, but those grown in baskets, plaques, and pots need regular fertilizing to assure healthy growth. Best results are obtained by fertilizing at a strength one-fourth to one-third of that recommended by the manufacturer, but applying it about every ten days or so. It is a good idea to flush the salts out of the container with a heavy watering just before each fertilization.

By Wilbur W. Olson, Copyright Los Angeles International Fern Society 1977.