Adiantum pedatum is a name that rolls off the tongue like an ancient song or a musical chant. Yet it will mislead you. It looks dainty because of its delicate, doily-like, finely divided foliage, but maidenhair ferns are some of the toughest plants around.
Botanist, teacher and nursery owner Martin Galloway saw them on Newfoundland’s Table Mountain where the environment is toxic to almost every other plant. “They survive when it is very hot, extremely cold, and where there are no nutrients in the soil because of metals,” he says. “They also grow in deep shade beneath giant trees. Although the ferns look delicate and lacy, they are indestructible.”
Teacher and lecturer Frank Kershaw calls them tough as nails. “Any garden would appreciate a maidenhair fern.” Kershaw adds that it provides richness to the garden.
The maidenhair fern grows 30 to 60 cm high and wide. It has a rounded clump of delicate, fan-shaped fronds with light green lacey leaves on purple-back stems. The fern thickens from the root. A thin leaf stalk emerges in spring liked a coiled violin head and contrasts with its fan-like sculpted leaflets.
An interesting fact is that these plants have water-repelling compounds in their foliage so water runs off the leaves. Even when the plant is immersed in water, the leaves remain dry.
For an interesting collection of plants with the same leaf shapes in a variety of sizes, Aldona Satterthwaite, executive director at the Toronto Botanical Garden, suggests planting maidenhair ferns and hellebores under fiveleaf aralia. These have similar leaf shapes, but different textures and sizes. Maidenhair ferns also contrast well with the bold foliage of hostas.
Adiantum pedatum is one of the star plants selected by 17 expert gardeners in Gardening from a Hammock by Ellen Novack and Dan Cooper. Gardening from a Hammock is an easy-to-use book describing how to create a fabulous, four-season garden using low-maintenance plants. It’s loaded with tips and has a botanical reference guide.