On Gardening: Tassel fern brings out the best in other plants

February 9, 2015
The tassel fern is from Japan and the Koreas, but looks so at home in a woodland garden with other foliage.

The tassel fern offers rare beauty, form and texture in the landscape, and everyone with a woodland garden should put this at the top of their list. Mention landscape ferns and most of us think about those that retreat under the mulch and soil line once freezing weather arrives. But the tassel fern known botanically as Polystichum polyblepharum gives us a lush evergreen presence even in winter.

It is so adaptable here you would argue it has to be native, but indeed it native to Japan and Korea. It is cold hardy to zone 5 and yet can thrive in filtered-light areas in zone 9. Like many ferns, it does need moist, fertile, organic-rich soil that is well drained. Those of you with the roving deer population can celebrate the fact that this one is not on their diet.

As hard as Polystichum polyblepharum is to spell or pronounce, those of us who are horticulturists find describing it to be equally challenging. I thought I was the only one until I read Tony Aventís humorous description in the online version of his Plant Delights Nursery catalogue. Here he points out the species name polyblepharum actually means many eyelashes.

One Web site compares this fernís form to that of a shuttlecock, while others call it vase-shaped. These are certainly correct, but I have a different description. When older, unattractive fronds are kept pruned, an established, 3-foot-wide or wider clump can have a 4- to 5-inch trunk, making it look like a cycad or sago palm. I have seen several that even remind me of a dwarf tree fern but with decidedly different fronds.

The plant gets its name from the way young fronds, called crosiers, unfurl and bend backward, drooping in a tassel form before flattening out. The evergreen fronds are a shiny dark green, creating an almost waxy appearance.

One of my favorite spots at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens finds three clusters of them growing underneath a 10-foot-tall Henry anise tree with its glorious coral-colored blossoms dangling downward like ornaments. In other areas we have them in close proximity to old-fashioned nandinas.

When I was hosting Southern Gardening TV news segments, I had the opportunity to film in a wonderful garden where the Japanese tassel fern was used among large rocks and partnered with the autumn fern. In another place it was planted along a topical looking trail with fancy-leafed hostas, elephant ears and bananas, which created a sensational contrast of texture.

Ferns are like that, they bring the woodland or shade garden to life like few other plants can and look right at home in the tropical-style garden. As you visit local garden centers this spring, keep your eyes open for not only the native ferns but the exquisite tassel fern.



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