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Extension > Garden > SULIS > Maintenance > Sustainable Herbaceous Plant Maintenance > Ferns

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Ferns are among the oldest plants known, dating back over 300 million years. Over the millennia, they have evolved into many different forms and textures and to suit a wide variety of habitats. During the Carboniferous Period (the Age of Ferns), ferns were the dominant form of vegetation on Earth.

According to the American Fern Society, there are four classes of living ferns:

The only living member of this class is the whisk fern (Psilotum), a primitive plant thought to be related to the first vascular plants that inhabited land.

This class includes spikemosses, (Selaginellia), clubmosses (Lycopodium), and quillworts (Isoetes).

This class has only one true genus, the horsetails (Equisetum).

Polypodiopsida (Pteropsida)
This is the class of the true ferns and the largest of the division Pterophyta. According to the American Fern Society, there are nine sub-classes of true ferns, approximately 250-300 genera and more than 12,000 different species alive today.

Ferns and their spore-bearing allies make up the group called the Pteridophytes. Pteridophytes are defined as vascular plants with independent gametophytes and motile sperm. They have characteristically complicated structure, different enough from flowering plants to warrant their own glossary of terminology. The most recognizable feature of a fern is its frond or leaf-like structure. Fronds range from 1/16 of an inch up to 12 feet long and may be feathery to coarse in texture. They have two main parts: the stipe or leaf stalk, and the blade which is the leafy portion. Details about the field systematic botany of ferns and fern allies can be found on the Texas A&M University website Pteridophytes.

Ferns are relatively easy to grow given the proper conditions. Several websites explain in detail about growing ferns including propagation, selection, culture, and pests and diseases:

A good website for determining which ferns that will grow in a specific cold hardiness zone is Handelskwekerij Henk Braam & Zn v.o.f. which links to This site features lists of tropical and hardy ferns, and a hardiness zone map of the Unites States. By simply clicking on an area, one can view a list of ferns that will grow in that zone.

For more on proper plant selection based on site and plant characteristics, see Plant Elements of Design plant selection database.

Click on any of the following headings and link to chapters that explain care and maintenance of herbaceous plants.

Dividing Plants
Dividing Rhizomes
Propagation by Vegetative Cuttings
Propagation by Spores
Transplanting Seedlings, Cuttings and Divided Plants

Staking, Supporting and Training Plants
Methods of Supporting Plants
Materials & Structures
Training to Improve Plant Health (FUTURE)
Training Plants for Ornamental Purposes (FUTURE)

Cutting Back Plants
Pruning for Plant Form
Pruning to Prevent Disease (FUTURE)
Deadheading and Pinching Back (FUTURE)

Mulching & Watering
Why Use Mulch?
Application of Mulch
Mulching for Weed Control
Mulching for Winter Protection
Mulching for Moisture Control
Organic Mulches
Synthetic Mulches
Watering Your Landscape
How to Determine the Frequency and Rate of Watering
Water Quality and its Effect on Plants

Nutrition, Fertilizers, and Compost
The Basics of Plant Nutrition and Fertilizers
Soils (FUTURE)
Compost (FUTURE)
Fertilizer: the Do's and Don'ts
Organic Fertilizers (FUTURE)
Inorganic Fertilizers (FUTURE)
Salt Tolerant Plants

Weed Management
Weed Identification and Lifecycles
Cultural Management Methods for Weed Control
Pruning for Weed Control (FUTURE)
Understanding Labels (FUTURE)
Alternatives to Chemical Herbicides (FUTURE)

Diseases and Insects
Integrated Pest Management (FUTURE)


American Fern Society, online information about ferns and fern allies. Revised November 12, 2001.

Handelskwekerij Henk Braam & Zn v.o.f Kalslagerweg 12, 1424 PM De Kwakel Holland,

Michigan State University Extension, "Growing Native Ferns", 03900005 . January 1, 1996.

North Carolina State University, "Ferns", Erv Evans, Hort On The Internet, August 2001.

Ohio State University, "Pterophyta", Michael Knee.

Texas A&M University, "Pteridophytes", Hugh Wilson. February 6, 1996.

University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, "Growing Ferns", Paul A. Thomas and Mel P. Garber.

University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, "Growing Ferns" Charles H. Williams, March 2001.

University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, "Hardy Ferns", Margaret Hagen,

University of Vermont Extension System, "Perennial Outdoor Hardy Ferns", Dr. Leonard Perry.

Virginia Cooperative Extension, "Care of Indoor Ferns", Diane Relf, April 1997

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