The sensitive fern is one that the gardener needs to be familiar with before including it in their landscape.

The sensitive fern is native to many places

The sensitive fern, Onoclea sensibilis is a large, distinctive fern, native to the North American continent, parts of Europe and Asia. Other common names are bead fern and meadow brake. It has large, light green fronds that once identified, can never be mistaken for any other fern. It favors moist, or boggy conditions and grows well in dappled shade or even full sun if enough moisture is present. Hardy between USDA zones 3 through 9, it makes a great addition to a woodland garden with one exception. The common name 'sensitive fern' refers to the fact that it is easily affected by the first autumn frosts. The underground rhizomes form dense mats and the fern grows up to two feet tall, so they make an impressive show. The gardener just needs to realize that they are not evergreen and if the area needs to stay covered, other plants should be incorporated into the landscape. However, these are such tough and aggressive ferns that they do not need tender or timid neighbors. Treat them as you would hostas, that also go dormant during the winter. Most people think that ferns are delicate and hard to grow and this one is anything but delicate. They form dense and large colonies in conditions where they are happy and even contribute to erosion control with their intertwining roots. They do well planted on stream banks that tend to wash and hold the soil in place quite nicely.

Get a comprehensive field guide to the ferns and their relatives of North America

Early peoples used the sensitive fern for medicine and food

Native peoples from around the world used this fern in a number of ways. It was part of the herbal pharmacy and was most often used to treat women's or reproductive issues. Tea from the roots was given to alleviate pain from childbirth and the ground leaves were used to staunch bleeding. Tea was also taken to treat arthritis and a wash of the boiled leaves and roots was even considered a cure for baldness. Some cultures even used the young fiddleheads steamed as a food source and boiled the fleshy roots as well, however this was often only a famine food and sensitive ferns were rarely on the menu unless out of necessity. This plant is actually somewhat toxic because eating large quantities of the sensitive fern strips the Vitamin B from the system. This plant contains a compound called thiaminase which binds the B complex to it and is then flushed out of the body. On the up side, a pale pinkish or tan natural dye was made from the stems, leaves and roots.

Foraging is fun, however you need an excellent field guide to make sure what you are harvesting is safe to eat.

colony of sensitive fern

Planting sensitive fern in the garden

Sensitive ferns should be divided in late fall or early spring before they start to grow. Divide the rhizome clumps into pieces about the size of your hand and plant them about 18 inches apart. They should fill in nicely and form thick colonies in a year or two. Plant the roots in prepared soil no more than a couple inches deep. Sensitive ferns prefer a shallow depth. They like constantly moist conditions, however they do not do well in standing water. Plant at the edges of ponds or woods where the ground remains moist. The north side of the house where the central air unit drips condensation is a great spot. The light green fronds emerge in early spring and these are the infertile leaves. The fertile leaves emerge in late summer and do not look like leaves at all. They are stalks with berry-like growths that stand among the leaves and that's where the spores form to make new ferns. These fertile stalks often stay standing throughout the winter and create seasonal interest in the garden, however they are not something that winter birds consider edible, so do not contribute to a wild bird garden. Deer may browse the infertile leaves a bit, however they do not find these ferns very tasty either. Some people may consider them a bit invasive, however this term is only to be used for non-native species. Sensitive ferns are native plants, they can just get aggressive if left untended and allowed to spread at will. This is an ancient plant that has remained unchanged since the dinosaurs walked the earth, so have a very strong survival mechanism. They are going to survive and thrive where conditions are to their liking.

sensitive ferns with fertile fronds

Commercial sources and traders available for sensitive ferns

These are easy to grow ferns that fill in spaces and give everything a lush, woodland feel. They are native, so comply with many HOA regulations. Few pests bother them and there are commercial mail order sources that sell them. We also have a number of members who have them available for trading. If you have a damp corner of your garden and need something to fill in the space the sensitive fern may be an excellent choice.

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