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It must have been the winter-long enough to erase all memory of summer; hard enough to force plants that usually reawaken piecemeal to bide their time and put forth all at once. In the garden, everything seems greener than I can remember. It’s not politely restrained, as in ‘green and pleasant land’, nor is it tentative and precarious, as in ‘green shoots of recovery’. It’s an eruption of chlorophyll, so transcendently beautiful that the loveliest flower is relegated to a footnote.
This green time is a native phenomenon-our thing, as poets other than Blake testify. The best-judged among many brilliant features of Christopher Bradley-Hole’s garden at Chelsea last month was his decision to convey the spirit of the English landscape through variations on the theme of green, our natural livery.
One plant group especially embodies it. Unlike its Victorian precursor, the new pteridomania has been one of the most undersung horticultural phenomena of the past decade. Ferns, it would seem, just aren’t manic enough for some. And yet an unprecedented range of varieties, classic and new, is being offered by nurseries such as Long Acre Plants (01963 32802; www.plantsforshade.co.uk) and Bowdens (www.bowdenhostas.com; 01837 840989) and several of our greatest gardeners have recently made or restored outdoor ferneries.
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We don’t run to one of those, but I find myself bewitched by the fronds emerging around the garden, and especially at dawn and dusk, when they acquire an unearthly luminescence. By the pond, the shuttlecocks of M. orientalis and Matteuccia struthiopteris possess freshness and dynamism unequalled by their neighbours. Colonised by the maidenhair Adiantum venustum, a shady corner of the rock garden is veiled with emerald lace. Shrubs are shod with Polystichum setiferum and P. polyblepharum, whose rosettes animate what would, otherwise, be dead ground.
Our bamboo grove (plum-striped Phyllostachys violascens) is carpeted with Selaginella kraussiana, a verdant moss-like fern ally, punctuated with its relation S. moellendorffii (a newly available species that resembles a miniature cypress), and the true ferns Dryopteris sieboldii (with leathery broad leaf segments) and D. wallichiana (magnificent golden green fiddleheads fleeced with shining black).
The joy of this planting is that it quietly beguiles rather than insisting. Its greens alone would be colours enough, but there are others-Arachniodes simplicior with holly-dark herringbones painted with cream; Athyrium filix-femina Lady in Red, a selection of one of our most beautiful native species, with grasshopper-green fronds on scarlet stipes (pteridophilese for stalks) that turn, in autumn, to ivory and coral.
Given a little shade and some moisture, colourful ferns are also invaluable in non-ferny contexts. With aubergine stipes and silver-traced sea-green fronds, Athyrium niponicum var. pictum is the perfect companion for purple Heuchera Frosted Violet and the bronze-leaved bugle Ajuga Braunherz. Unfurling in brilliant copper, Dryopteris erythrosora picks up the roseate tint of new Epimedium foliage and adds spice to the fresh limes and chartreuses of hostas and the grass Hakonechloa macra.
The tawny gold plumes of its close cousin Dryopteris labordei work similar magic against dark greens such as ivy, Sarcococca, Lonicera pileata and Ilex crenata. More colourful still is Selaginella uncinata, which forms a network of wiry rooting stems. In summer, its scale-like leaves turn from sere to iridescent blue. This has earned it the name peacock moss, but, to my eyes, it is more the turquoise of the kingfisher.
A form that I collected in the Far East years ago has withstood recent winters, although I keep a few stem cuttings in a cold frame for safety’s sake-they’re incredibly easy to take, so much so that you’ll be giving them away. This is a dazzling fern ally for carpeting damp, shady borders, making rainbows under big-leaved hostas such as Sum and Substance. Shady Plants (www.shadyplants.net; 00353-86 0542171) offers a hardy form.
In fact, I’m starting to wonder if I misspoke by beginning in praise of green. We have all sorts of ferns that are anything but.
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