On Gardening

Pretty arborvitae fern a must for the woodland garden

McClatchy-Tribune News ServiceJanuary 11, 2013 


In this woodland garden the arborvitae fern on the right offers a distinct texture that resembles a lacy ground hugging conifer. Here it is partnered with begonias and ornamental sweet potatoes. (MCT)


The past few years I have become enamored with the arborvitae fern. This slowly spreading plant reaches 12 to 18 inches tall and gives the appearance of being a lacy, ground-hugging conifer. If you are the fortunate owner of a woodland garden looking to add a fern or two, put the arborvitae fern high on your list of must-have plants.

Botanically speaking, it is Selaginella braunii, and is a real anomaly when it comes to common names – since it’s not a fern.

It does share a fern trait: It doesn’t flower, but produces spore-bearing cones. Its other common name is spikemoss and – though it would look to be a natural fit in a mossy garden – it is not a moss, either.

Among the oldest living plants on Earth, the arborvitae fern is a lycopod from China, and is just one of several hundred of these species, including some native to the U.S.

If you add this plant to your garden, you’ll love its wonderful texture. The arborvitae fern is cold hardy in zones 6-9, which spans all of North Carolina, and is classified as evergreen to semi-evergreen and deciduous depending on the zone. It will take awhile to form a clump but is worth the patience required.

Select a site that has shaded to filtered light. The soil should be fertile, organic-rich and well-drained. This will provide for the fastest spread. Space your plants on 2-foot centersto design your clump or drift. Maintain a regular water regimen the first year as plants are getting established and keep the bed area well mulched to prevent competition from weeds.

Woodland gardens are most effective when designed with winding paths or walkways. Use the arborvitae fern in drifts or clumps along these trails with companions like the Solomon’s seal or toad lily. Try it as an understory companion to hydrangeas of all species. It also fits perfectly with hostas and can be partnered with impatiens. No fern garden, however, should be considered complete without a patch or two of the arborvitae fern.

At the Columbus (Ga.) Botanical Garden, we have them next to a short brick pedestal featuring a large bonsai juniper. In another area we have them in partnership with rocks, and now we are dividing and transplanting clumps to a new moss and lichen garden. Another strong attribute: They are not eaten by deer.

Now would be a good time to check with your local garden center to see if it can get them for you for spring planting. If not, you have plenty of time to purchase from mail-order nurseries.

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