A fern with attitude

True story: A couple of years ago, when my guy was applying for a permit to build a stand-alone garage near our cottage on the Bruce Peninsula, he had to jump through a lot of bureaucratic hoops, including an on-site inspection by the powers that be to ensure we would be inflicting the least amount of damage to the area. This is a good thing. We want this wonderfully rich environment we’re so lucky to live in to be protected. However, the inspectors went all over our property and found, much to their delight, amazement and bewilderment, a couple of “extremely rare” Hart’s Tongue Ferns. Gasp. Fortunately, they said, the ferns were at the farthest point on our property from the proposed garage site so they eventually gave us the permissions we needed to proceed.

Here’s the thing. I planted those “extremely rare” Hart’s Tongue Ferns myself. I bought them from a highly reputable garden nursery specializing in native plants but I’ve seen them for sale at other garden centres in Ontario. We had a good chuckle over the whole affair but we didn’t bother to let the officials know that these ferns hadn’t chosen our property on their own accord. We figure let those hard working officials have their moment. Who knows, they may still be sharing their story of serendipitous discovery over a cold beer these several years later.

Hart's tongue fern

Hart’s Tongue: Wild at heart

Google Asplenium scolopendrium (Hart’s Tongue Fern) and you’re bound to find all kinds of lovely photos of the plant looking absolutely spectacular–like a crown of bright lime green feathers sproinging from a perfectly symmetrical base. But, from my experience, Hart’s Tongue is anything but luxuriant and well-behaved. Why this is so is a bit of a mystery to me although I suspect that my plants know they’re in the harshest of their native habitats and so feel free to defiantly fling their fronds at will with no care for style or decorum. In the UK, the plant is so loved for its neat “rosette of arching fronds” that the Royal Horticultural Society anointed the plant with a “prestigious Award of Garden Merit”. Tell that to my specimens and they’d probably blow a raspberry at you if they could.

But if you’re OK with investing in a fern that’s really different, here are some really good reasons why you should seek this one out.

As fern’s go, Hart’s Tongue is very un-fernlike. Each frond is undivided which means the frond has no leaflets which give fern fronds their lovely feathery appearance. Hart’s Tongue fronds are more like straps of shiny green leather with striking dark brown lines of sori (the spore-bearing organs) striping the underside of each leaf (shown in the photo farther below). If you have a collection of ferns in a woodland-style garden bed, a few Hart’s Tongues will serve to break up all that feathery frothiness, providing some eye-catching colour and shine.

It’s rare, sort of. A European variety of Asplenium scolopendrium grows wild in areas from Iceland to the British Isles, Scandinavia and central Asia. Here in North America, the ferns are rarer with small populations found in the Unites States, including Michigan and New York. Canadian Hart’s Tongue Fern is only found in the wild in Ontario on the Niagara Escarpment of which the above mentioned Bruce Peninsula is a part. Having said that, as I mentioned, it’s often available at large garden nurseries, including Ontario-based Connon Nurseries.

Hart’s Tongue has personality to spare. As you can see from the photos above, Hart’s Tongue loves to shoot off the odd extra-long sword-like frond. Just because. Is it checking out new territory? Pointing an accusing frond at a neighbour? Who can tell. But every year, my Hart’s Tongues show no sign of regularity in shape or growth habit. Each fern decides how many fronds they’re going to grow and how long they’ll be. And every year, they sprout their fronds in a tangle, pointing every which way. Clearly, my Hart’s Tongues never got the memo about growing into a rosette.

Hart's Tongue Fern 4

Making your Hart’s Tongue at home

As hilarious/frustrating as Hart’s Tongue can be, it makes a wonderful addition to a woodland-themed garden. As it can be unpredictable and very slow-growing (see more below), I recommend hedging your bets by accompanying your Hart’s Tongues with a variety of ferns native to Canada to guarantee a real woodsy look. Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) and Northern Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) are classic choices. The latter pairs particularly nicely with Hart’s Tongue because Maidenhair is basically the opposite of Hart’s Tongue, being as airy fairy as a fern can possibly get (see below). Besides wonderfully contrasting textures, Maidenhair won’t crowd out or overshadow Hart’s Tongue. Christmas fern, with its leathery evergreen fronds and towering Ostrich fern are native neighbours to Hart’s Tongue but they can easily bully wee Hart’s Tongue so it’s best to keep them at a distance.

Maidenhair fern showing the plant's stems.
The slender, black, wiry stems of the Maidenhair fern is one of its best distinguishing features.

Like a lot of other ferns, Hart’s Tongue doesn’t need much earth (just a few inches in fact) which make them an ideal plant for a rockery. If you’re gardening in amongst limestone, all the better, but using slightly acidic soil is a good place to start regardless. They prefer the full but dappled shade (not deep shade) of deciduous trees–they naturally occur in Ontario underneath canopies of sugar maples.

Hart’s Tongue is slow growing so choose your planting spots carefully. You want to position them so that they can be clearly seen and not crowded out by other plants over time. Wedge some between moss covered rocks and tree roots for a truly woodsy look that frames them really well. Check out my post “The Slow Art of Moss Growing” if you want some mossy rocks and Mother Nature hasn’t complied.

Hart's Tongue Fern 5

For a really thorough guide to growing ferns in Ontario, check out the Toronto Master Gardeners Growing Guide to Hardy Garden Ferns.

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