The Exotic but Hardy - Evergreen Tree Fern


I never planned to have a tree fern but I was given one on my 70th birthday and I cannot imagine the garden without it now. Its solid 'trunk' carries enormous feathery leaves like a splendid crest at the top giving it a truly stately and yet delicate look. Tree ferns come originally from Tasmania, Australia and New Zealand. They are among the oldest plants in the world - older than dinosaurs and they were no doubt  included in  the  diet of those dinosaurs that were vegan. It's Latin name is Dicksonia Anatarctica and I think the plant is probably more or less unchanged since its dinosaur days. 

Tree fern contrasting with golden privet

I love to watch the change in my tree fern  over the year. It is slow growing, only achieving about 2.5cm a year. All the growth comes from the top of the trunk. Some people cut off the leaves in winter or fold them over to protect the growing point at the top. I leave the leaves to provide a lovely feathery greenery all winter. I cut them off in spring when I can begin to feel the curled up fronds lurking in the crown. So for a short time it looks bare at the top but soon the fronds begin to show - these huge curls of  promise, surrounded by baby-soft russet-coloured 'fur' which is so lovely to stroke.  

First fronds beginning to unfurl


They push up pretty quickly and in no time the leaves have stretched out to 36cm or so and one by one open out to create a generous green canopy. Mine presents a good example of small gardens being able to cope with statuesque plants.     

Fronds beginning to reach up to the sky

By summer it is like a tree. It is certainly one of the important structures in the garden and the surprising thing is how exotic it looks while at the same time seeming absolutely at home, because it is in many ways very like our own native ferns. 

It likes damp, sheltered woodland slopes, with a bit of shade that won't get waterlogged in winter and will grow in most soils. When mine arrived I was quite disconcerted because it seemed just to be a log, with no roots. There are roots, of course, but not the kind you can use to steady the plant in the soil so you need to plant the trunk 10cm-15cm in the ground and tread it in firmly. It doesn't like drought so in hot spells in summer I hose its trunk down from time to time. I have been advised to feed it throughout the summer, but because I mulch the garden I don't bother with this and the fern seems fine.

Tree fern with Geranium 'Rose Clair' growing underneath

My tree fern is  about 5ft tall in the trunk and hardy to -5 degrees or more here in London for short periods. The taller a fern is, the hardier it will be. I later tried two much smaller tree ferns in other parts of the garden but they failed. I think they were perhaps just too small. They are still there, though dead.  I like to think they are perhaps providing shelters for insects. Each winter, I cover the ground and a little way up the trunk with insulation of some kind, wool packaging is fine and I crumple up a bit of horticultural fleece and tuck it into  the crown, which protects not just from frost but from damp as well. Underneath I grow things that don't mind shade, spring bulbs such as snowdrops, then hardy geraniums and tobacco plants and later, autumn anemones. The shorter double pink ones seem to do really well under the fern. 

A few fronds picked in winter and put into a long narrow container, like this glass pasta holder, can take the place of a traditional Chrismas tree for a tiny household like mine.