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Ferns have a strange charm of their own. Used in groups, they can be very decorative, the lacy fronds of some contrasting with the long tongue-like leaves of others. The Victorians, who did not have the problems of central heating or air conditioning to worry about, were fond of indoor ferneries or rocky grottoes planted with Ferns, an idea worth reviving if a cool enough spot can be found in the more comfortable homes of today. An empty grate might be ideal. Alternatively, there are Ferns from tropical forests which like a steamy atmosphere.
Coming from dim forest glades, Ferns do not need much light, which is a considerable help in some corners of the house. But they do need moist conditions - either lots of watering or the humid atmosphere of an enclosed glass case or bottle garden.
You can collect Ferns from a wood, or possibly growing at the foot of a town wall, but pot-grown plants from a plant nursery are likely to do better indoors. Although they need plenty of moisture, the usual drainage precautions must be taken to keep their roots from getting soggy.
To keep Ferns healthy grow them, if possible, in a mixture consisting of equal parts of sand, peat and compost; a handful of leaf mould would be a helpful addition. It is not always easy to buy Ferns as pot plants and choice may be limited, but some are worth looking out for.
Asplenium (Spleenworts). A large genus of evergreen Ferns which vary considerably in
appearance. Leaves are leathery in texture and the plants strong growing, which helps them withstand a variety of conditions. However, very small Aspleniums need special care and thrive in Ward cases. Most cultivated varieties are decorative with typical fern-like fronds. A.bulbiflorum has lovely green fronds 2 feet long and 8 inches wide; A.colensoi has young plants on its 9 inch fronds; and A. trichomanes (Maidenhair Spleenwort), with its tufted 6-12 inch fronds, is hardy and will withstand tough conditions.
Asplenium nidus is one of the exceptions in the group as it has single undivided leaves (not frond-like) which can grow as long as 4 feet and be 6-9 inches across. It does, however need warm, moist conditions to flourish.
Adiantum (Maidenhair Fern). Another genus containing many handsome forms. In general, the 'leaflets' are more rounded than the Aspleniums and the plants more graceful and delicate. Most species are hardy and easy to grow and keep well indoors. A.cuneatum and A.capillus-veneris require little attention; the latter is particularly attractive with almost clover-like 'leaflets'. Both varieties grow about 9 inches long.
Nephrolepsis (Ladder Ferns). Delightful ferns, all with simple 'leaflet' fronds which can grow up to 4 feet long. Allow them plenty of space to develop. They are particularly effective when grouped among other ferns and are very useful in hanging baskets, as all tend to droop. The most popular are N.acuminata and N.exaltata.
Phyllitis. Among the few Ferns in this genus P.scolopendrium (Hart's Tongue), and its varieties, is by far the most popular. The fronds are single and strap-shaped, growing up to 18 inches in length. Their beautiful green contrasts effectively with other Ferns in a group. It is variable in form, however, and it is worth looking for the particular shape and appearance you like.
Pteris. A large genus, all with graceful fronds of many 'leaflets'. The best varieties for indoor growing, especially as they tolerate light better than many other ferns, are P.cretica (fronds 6-12 inches); P.multifida, the Spider Fern (up to 18 inches); and P.tremula (fronds of up to 4 feet long and 2 feet wide, so allow it plenty of space to grow to its full glory).
Platycerium (Stag's or Elk's Horn Fern). Perhaps the most extraordinary of all Ferns. Their common names describes the appearance. Known as ephiphytic Ferns, they grow well in baskets or fastened to a piece of wood or tree branch with wire or string. In both cases wrap their roots in coarse peat and sphagnum moss. They like plenty of light, and water in moderation. The most commonly found variety is P. bifurcatum.
Asparagus (Asparagus Fern). It is not a true fern but is mentioned here because of its delicate green feathery foliage and climbing habit (up to 10 feet). A.plumosus and A.sprengeri are the two most popular. They like plenty of water and liquid fertilizer in summer and will stand light better than many true ferns. Excellent for baskets and cutting for flower arrangements.