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Ferns--4 Million Years Old . . . and Still Growing


When Barbara Joe Hoshizaki was in graduate school, her professor asked her to identify and tally all of the ferns available on the market.

That was 1950.

Today, the retired Los Angeles City College botany and biology teacher is still counting.

"The list of ferns available for the home garden keeps growing," said Hoshizaki, who lives in Los Angeles. She is author of "The Fern Grower's Manual" (Timber Press, Spring 2001) and a founding member of the Los Angeles International Fern Society (LAIFS), which is holding its annual Fern and Exotic Plant Show and sale today and Sunday at the Arboretum of Los Angeles County.

"Ferns are a huge category of plants that is still largely undiscovered," she said. "There are 12,000 known species of ferns, but we only grow a couple hundred of them."

According to discovered fossils, they are about 4 million years old, and they grow just about everywhere, adding to their popularity.

In 20 years of growing ferns, Lois Rossten hasn't seen one that she doesn't like.

"They're all so pleasant and dainty looking, and they're so easy to grow," said the Huntington Beach gardener, who is also a member of LAIFS. "Except for the tree types, ferns stay nice and small and never outgrow the space you set for them."

It's easy to pack ferns into a tight space, agreed Herb Wilkinson, a University of California master gardener, who specializes in ferns. His Huntington Beach garden is full of a variety of ferns, especially hanging types.

Wilkinson is also a member of LAIFS, and has been overseeing the installation of a fern garden at the UCI Arboretum, which will be dedicated on Sept. 9.

"I got involved with growing ferns because they're so beautiful and not everyone grows them," Wilkinson said. "They are a good shade plant that can be used as an accent. My whole entryway is filled with ferns and I have an atrium that is also full of them. Ferns create a cool, lush retreat wherever you place them."

One of Wilkinson's favorite ferns is Polypodium subauriculatum Knightiae, which is rare. This hanging fern has a long, lacy fronds that resemble ostrich feathers. Another is Polypodium aureum (Mexican tasseled fern). This has large blue-green fronds with ruffled ends.

Growing ferns is easy, if you keep a few tips in mind.

* Provide shade. Most ferns like a shady location. Ferns tend to yellow and won't thrive in too much light. But they don't like deep shade. A protected area with some filtered light is generally best.

* Plant in a protected area. Windy locations aren't good homes for most ferns.

* Provide good drainage. Plant in an area that drains well or use a well-draining mix for pot or hanging basket culture.

In the ground, if you have heavy clay, amend by 50% with pumice or perlite, and organic materials such as peat moss or compost.

Good mixes for pot culture include pumice or perlite, bark chips and peat moss.

* Water correctly. Ferns do not like overly wet conditions, Hoshizaki said. "They require moist, but not soggy soil," she said. "On the other hand, they also suffer if they're left to dry out."

Water ferns when they are approaching dryness. When you water depends on the weather, Wilkinson said. "During hot, dry Santa Ana wind conditions, you might need to water a hanging fern three times a day as opposed to once a week during cooler winter months."

* Fertilize lightly. Ferns aren't heavy feeders, but they do grow better with some fertilizing, Hoshizaki said. Use a well-balanced fertilizer every three weeks during the growing season, or use 1/4-strength solution every time you water.

The growing season generally lasts from spring through summer. Stop feeding when the frond production begins to dwindle, which is usually some time in fall.

Wilkinson also suggests flushing plants with water every four to six weeks during the growing season to wash out salt buildup..

* Watch for pests. Some ground-grown ferns tend to have trouble with slugs and snails. Use snail and slug bait, or simply smash the pests.

For certain ferns, thrips are also a problem. Infestation can often be avoided with proper cultural practices, such as proper watering. Consult a certified nursery professional regarding treatment.

* Groom in late winter or early spring. Many ferns respond well to pruning at the beginning of the growing season. Wilkinson likes to prune old growth just as new growth begins to form, which he finds stimulates ferns to produce stronger, thicker growth.

How much you prune a fern will depend on its growth habit. Some are heavy with fronds, while others only have a few.

When trimming ferns, avoid contact with the little hairs that are located on the leafstalks, as they can be very irritating to the skin and eyes. Wear long sleeves and a neck cloth.

* Don't mistakenly toss a good plant. Some ferns go dormant in the winter months and look as if they've died. Cut back on watering until they begin to grow again.


Exotics, Ferns Offered for Sale

* The Fern and Exotic Plant Show and Sale is being held today and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the The Arboretum of Los Angeles County, 301 North Baldwin Ave., in Arcadia (1/2 mile south of the 210 freeway). $1-$5. (626) 821-3222.

* The UCI Arboretum fern garden dedication will be held on Sept. 9 at 1 p.m. The Arboretum is located just south of the corner of Campus Drive and Jamboree Road on the UCI North Campus. (714) 840-8217.

* M & M Nursery in Orange carries a variety of ferns. (714) 538-8042.

* Los Angeles International Fern Society (LAIFS), Web site

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