For years I have grown as many perennials as space allows in my garden. I have, needless to say, amassed quite a collection. While I admire the colorful flowers that bloom on many of them, I now realize that many of my favorite perennials are simply green.
Leatherleaf fern (Rumohra adiantiformis) is a prime example. Growing just outside my kitchen door in a narrow passageway between the house and garage, it stays green year round and is handy for cutting when I need a bit of greenery for my floral designs and bouquets. Triangular-shaped, dark green, glossy fronds arise from a central clump. Spreading at a moderate rate, these clumps never become invasive. Some references indicate that leatherleaf fern is hardy from Zones 9B-11. However, in my Zone 8B garden it has been faithfully hardy. A couple of times it got killed back to the ground by winter’s cold, but it returned faithfully the following spring.
Holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum), too, is a consistently green presence in my garden. Slow-growing and well mannered, it sends out lustrous erect to arching fronds that radiate out from the center. Growing 20 to 30 inches tall, this clumping fern never outgrows its bounds, either vertically or horizontally. If it gets ratty looking from cold or windy weather, cut the old fronds down to the ground in spring. New ones will unfurl quickly, and the fern will be all new and vigorous again. Holly fern is well suited to shady beds in Zones 7-ll. Autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) has garnered several awards in recent years. Florida selected it as a Florida Plant of the Year, and Georgia named it a Georgia Gold Metal Winner. Coppery red and green triangular fronds emerge in spring and provide an attractive contrast with the older, dark green fronds. Hardy in Zones 5-9, this dependable evergreen fern grows 18 to 24 inches tall and fills its space dependably. ‘Brilliance’ is reported to be more colorful than the species and to hold its autumn-like colors for a longer period of time.
Tassel fern (Polystichum polyblepharum) is another very attractive fern. Broad, symmetrical, and vase-shaped, this evergreen fern sports lustrous, dark green fronds. Easily identified by its frosted undersides and rusty brown, hairy stems, tassel fern makes an attractive statement in a shady garden space. Fiddleheads unfurl like most other ferns initially. Then, as if they have suddenly become exhausted from so much vigorous growth, they do a surprising turn and drop down and backward like a tassel. They stay that way for a short time and then seem to regain vigor as the drooping tassels straighten up and continue to grow. Tassel fern is hardy in Zones 5-9.
All these ferns grow well in full to part shade, and they appreciate well-drained but evenly moist, humus-rich, acidic soil. If needed, groom in spring before new growth emerges by removing old, unsightly fronds. Fertilize with balanced fertilizer (about a pound per 100 square foot of planted area) in spring to keep ferns growing vigorously.
Another favorite green perennial is arborvitae fern (Selaginella braunii). Despite its common name, it is not a fern but is a fern relative commonly called club moss. Gradually growing to cover the ground with a solid, weed-deterring mass, it is an ideal groundcover for gardens in Zones 6-10. The common name is self explanatory because the foliage somewhat resembles arborvitae or cedar. Although the yellow-green fronds of finely dissected foliage look delicate, arborvitae fern is a sturdy, attractive groundcover.
Aspidistra elatior, commonly called cast iron plant, is another favorite, simply green plant. Red flowers bloom at ground level in spring, but one is not likely to see them unless the plants are being dug or one happens to be closely examining the base of the plant at exactly the right time. When well grown, cast iron plant produces glossy, dark green leaves two to three feet long and six to eight inches wide. However, if conditions are not to its liking, it can quickly become an eyesore.
Aspidistra is at its best in a protected, shady spot. Wind shreds the foliage, and sun bleaches it to a sickly, yellow color. Moist, organic soil and an occasional top-dressing of compost or balanced fertilizer will help it thrive. Keep the planting well groomed and attractive by removing old, tattered leaves every year or so. Scale insects can become problematic and may need to be treated with horticultural oil from time to time. Floral designers are particularly fond of Aspidistra foliage because it is long-lasting and can be wired, bent, torn, or twisted in a variety of ways.
The more my garden matures (or maybe it is the gardener who is maturing), the more I realize that many of my most dependable perennials are simply green. I will continue to grow perennials that produce beautiful flowers during their season. However, I will treasure the always present green workhorses that provide their more colorful compatriots a solid background against which to shine. They’re simply green – and simply beautiful.