Plant Profile: Tongue and Ribbon Ferns

Plant Profile: Tongue and Ribbon Ferns

Pyrrosia (Tongue Fern), Microsorum, Neolepisorus, and Lepisorus (Ribbon Ferns)

By Published February 21, 2023

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Some of the most distinctive and different-looking ferns for our woodland gardens are these strap-leaved ferns that differ from the “typical” fern in having a simple (not divided) frond. They are mostly members of the family Polypodiaceae which also includes familiar plants like Staghorn Fern and the Resurrection Ferns (Pleopeltis michauxiana) that frequently drape the Live Oaks of the coastal plain. Tongue, ribbon, and strap ferns elicit the feeling of being in a tropical rainforest and indeed many strap-leaved species are common elements in such places. Some of the strap-leaved ferns occur in genera that are typically not strap-like such as the common Hart’s-tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium) or Lance-leaf Glade Fern (Deparia lancea) and are treated in our articles on those genera. The genera treated here are found in genera that typically produce strap-like or tongue-like fronds. In the 1990’s few, if any, of these amazing ferns were included in most temperate woodland gardens. Plant Delights and Juniper Level Botanic Garden have provided a crucial testing ground for the introduction of many new and exciting elements that can provide that “tropical feel” to your intimate garden spaces. Though it might be tempting to cut back tongue and ribbon ferns in the winter, you should resist the urge. These plants should only have the leaves removed when they have died back as they are very slow to recover when cut back prematurely.


Pyrrosia (Tongue Fern) is an old-world fern genus of about 74 mostly evergreen, epiphytic species (growing on trees) that are native from Africa to southeast Asia, mostly in the tropics. Some species extend well into the temperate zones in eastern Asia, and these prove to be some of the most distinctive and interesting elements that can be added to the woodland garden. Pyrrosia is derived from the Greek word ‘pyrros’ meaning red and refers to the reddish tint of the stellate hairs of some Pyrrosia species and the common name comes from the fact that some species have fronds that are distinctly tongue-shaped when compared to more typical garden ferns.

Most members of the genus Pyrrosia are evergreen, slowly rhizomatous epiphytic ferns that adapt quite well to container culture, especially hanging baskets. Pyrrosias also are stellar performers in the ground in warm temperate climates, they grow slowly if planted on flat ground and conversely grow much faster and better when planted on a slope. The many foliage variations of Pyrrosia lingua are highly prized by collectors in Japan and are slowly making their way into the US.

Pyrrosia ‘Eboshi’ (Contorted Tongue Fern) Pyrrosia ‘Eboshi’ is a hybrid between P. sheareri and P. lingua. This interesting plant produces contorted wavy leaves that are otherwise similar in size to P. lingua. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b)

Pyrrosia hastata (Hastate Felt Fern) We have grown the clumping Pyrrosia hastata in our garden since 1992, during which time it has dropped just below 0ºF.  From the slowly expanding clump arises blackish-brown stipes (stems) topped with really neat, three lobed, felty, dark evergreen leaves. The leaf backs are a wonderful felty brown. In the wild, this species can either grow in loose organic soil or as an epiphyte. This species has a very distinct appearance in comparison to other Pyrrosia and a must have for the collector. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b)

Pyrrosia lingua (Tongue Fern) We have grown this slowly spreading, rhizomatous species in the ground for over 25 years. The thin rhizome grows along the top of the ground, and the leaves arise individually between 2” and 10” apart. The leaves have a unique, cardboard-like texture with a felty backside, eventually forming a nice evergreen mass.  While it will grow flat, it will prosper far greater when planted on a slope…the steeper, the better.  In the wild (China, Japan, Taiwan), it grows primarily as an epiphyte on tree trunks. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)

Pyrrosia lingua ‘Alabama Gold’ (Alabama Gold Tongue Fern) Pyrrosia lingua 'Alabama Gold', was shared by Alabama plantsman, Hayes Jackson, who found it for sale at a local garden center. 'Alabama Gold' creeps via pencil-lead sized rhizomes that lay on the ground or any solid surface. Emerging from the rhizome are 10" long, thumb-shaped leaves with a leathery texture. The green leaves are flushed gold when grown where it receives open shade or morning sun. Pyrrosia lingua 'Alabama Gold' should form a 2' wide patch in 3-5 years but will also make a stunning container specimen. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)

Pyrrosia lingua 'Corymbifera' (Crested Tongue Fern) This rare, crested form of the Tongue Fern is among the most beautiful of the ferns we grow. Each dark green cardboard-textured frond, which emerges from the thin surface-growing rhizome, looks like a reindeer head after a bad experience with a four-wheel drive pickup...nice antlers, but sort of twisted out of shape. Grow this evergreen fern in a well-drained site on a slope for best performance. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)

Pyrrosia lingua 'Cuspidata' (Pointed Tongue Fern) Pyrrosia lingua 'Cuspidata' is a rarely offered form of the hairy leaved tongue fern that boasts much stubbier foliage than normal Pyrrosia lingua. As with the species, Pyrrosia lingua 'Cuspidata' spreads nicely via short rhizomes...faster in less harsh climates, but never invasive. In nature, these evergreen ferns grow on trees and rocks, but for us have adapted well to typical rich garden soil...especially on sloped well-drained sites. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)

Pyrrosia lingua ‘Futaba Shishi’ (Futaba Shishi Tongue Fern) Like Pyrrosia lingua ‘Corymbifera’, this is a crested form, although not as crinkly as the latter. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b)

Pyrrosia lingua ‘Hagoromo Nishiki’ (Hagoromo Nishiki Tongue Fern) Pyrrosia lingua 'Hagoromo Nishiki' is a rarely offered variegated Japanese selection of evergreen tongue fern. The 9" tall leaf is perched atop a 3" thin-but-sturdy stipe (the thingy that connects the leaf to the rhizome). Each fuzzy olive green, upright, cardboard-textured, wavy-edged leaf is heavily banded with chartreuse golden stripes. Pyrrosia lingua is an epiphytic fern (doesn't need soil), that spreads slowly via a thin ground surface rhizome. Pyrrosia 'Hagoromo Nishiki' grows well in the ground on a slope, or in colder climates, will make a fantastic hanging basket specimen. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b)

Pyrrosia lingua ‘Hiryu’ (Hiryu Cutleaf Tongue Fern) This hard-to-find selection of tongue fern is also hard to describe. The fuzzy, green, tongue-shaped leaves look like what you would imagine if you stuck your tongue into an electrical socket. Each leaf has bizarre protuberances along the edge as if it had been cut with a pair of pinking shears. Although Pyrrosia lingua is usually epiphytic in the wild, spreading by a thin but almost woody rhizome, we have found it grows best in the garden if the soil is organically rich and the grade is sloped. Pyrrosia 'Hiryu' also makes an easy-to-grow container plant. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b)

Pyrrosia lingua ‘Kaeri Tei’ (Kaeri Tei Tongue Fern) Pyrrosia lingua 'Kaeru Tei' is a Japanese selection of the Asian tongue fern. With a name like 'Kaeru Tei', which means to "change appearance", you can imagine that each leaf will be different. The 6" long, black-green, tongue-shaped leaves are edged with irregular-sized angular protuberances... Hello Siri...what's an angular protuberance? In short, it's a fern that only a mother could love. So, have you ever been called a mother? (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b)

Pyrrosia lingua ‘Kei Kan’ (Kei Kan Tongue Fern) Pyrrosia lingua 'Kei Kan' is a Japanese selection of evergreen tongue fern with foliage similar to Pyrrosia lingua 'Hiryu', except the frond is much wider, sometimes reaching 4" wide. Each thick evergreen frond is deeply lobed with the terminal tip resembling a wet duck feather. The fronds emerge vertically from the wiry rhizome that runs just above the soil. Sloped planting sites result in best growth. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b)

Pyrrosia lingua ‘Limon’ (Limon Tongue Fern) Pyrrosia lingua 'Limon' is a 2014 Plant Delights/JLBG introduction that started its life here as a sport on Pyrrosia 'Ogon Nishiki' that went to all gold. Pyrrosia lingua 'Limon' is composed of upright tongue-shaped, rigid foliage that grows from a thin, fairly brittle, creeping rhizome. The foliage of Pyrrosia 'Limon' is brightest in very open shade or some morning sun but will turn completely green when planted in deep shade. The vigor in Pyrrosia 'Limon' is quite good and it should form a 2' wide patch in 3-5 years...if the soil is organically amended. As with all Pyrrosia lingua cultivars, the fastest growth occurs when they are planted on a slope or in a hanging basket. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b)

Pyrrosia lingua ‘Nokogiri Ba’ (Nokogiri Ba Tongue Fern) Pyrrosia lingua 'Nokogiri Ba' is a fascinating selection of tongue fern, whose thick, cardboard-like dark green leaves have ridiculously wavy margins that appear almost as saw-like protuberances. Each evergreen leaf emerges from a wiry rhizome which runs along the ground. In marginal winter climates, it is important to plant this on a slope to mimic its epiphytic nature. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b)

Pyrrosia lingua 'Ogon Nishiki' (Ogon Nishiki Tongue Fern) This Japanese selection of the evergreen tongue fern forms a dense colony to 2' wide in 5 years, thanks to a short creeping rhizome.  Pyrrosia 'Ogon Nishiki' has thick, green, vertically held leaves with diagonal, butterscotch-yellow banding. Each leaf is 1' long by 2" wide. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b)

Pyrrosia lingua ‘Shinonome’ (Shinonome Tongue Fern) Pyrrosia ‘Shinonome’ is a Japanese selection whose leaves can either be solid gold or gold with green stripes. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b)

Pyrrosia lingua 'Tachiba Koryu' (Tachiba Koryu Tongue Fern) This is another of the many splendid Japanese selections of the tongue fern. The narrow, thick, leathery leaves are incredibly ruffled and are held vertically above the rhizome. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b)

Pyrrosia lingua ‘Tosa Daio’ (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b)

Pyrrosia lingua ‘Yabane Fu’ (Yubane Fu Tongue Fern) Pyrrosia lingua 'Yabane Fu' is a selection of the epiphytic Japanese tongue fern with 7" long, thick, leathery evergreen leaves with randomly jagged edges and equally random streaks of green and yellow. All Pyrrosia lingua forms are just as happy growing on a tree or rock as long as their foliage gets adequate moisture. We prefer our plants in containers of a compost rich mix. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b)

Pyrrosia petiolosa ‘Taste of China’ (Taste of China Tongue Fern) Pyrrosia petiolosa 'Taste of China' is a 2021 Plant Delights/JLBG introduction of a new strain of the prized Chinese medicinal fern, Pyrrosia petiolosa. We originally imported this from China as Pyrrosia lingua, which was obviously incorrect, but when we keyed it out using Hovenkamp's 280-page Pyrrosia monograph, it took us to Pyrrosia petiolosa, albeit with larger foliage than we've seen on the Siberian forms. Our taxonomist, Zac Hill, said it was the distinctly sunken hydathodes that confirmed its identity. Pyrrosia petiolosa is the hardiest species in the genus, with Siberian forms being reliable in Zone 5. Pyrrosia 'Taste of China' is a spore strain, so there is some difference in the mature height of each clone, but between 3" and 6" tall seems to be the range. The slowly spreading rhizomes of this lithophyte (rock dweller) form a tightly clustered mass of upright foliage with each 3" long x 2" wide, thick, felty evergreen leaf held atop a 2" to 3" stipe. We are very excited about how well it's grown in our compost-rich garden soil. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b)

Pyrrosia polydactyla (Five Finger Tongue Fern) We love this superb species of evergreen tongue fern from Taiwan. It makes a stunning 1' tall by 1' wide textural clump of felty, five-fingered, dark green leaves. It was amazing to see this in the wild in Taiwan in 2008, growing mostly on rocks and on rocky banks.  I was surprised at both the range of elevations at which it occurred as well as the diversity of leaf shapes, which ranged from a 1’ long central frond to five narrow fronds of equal length. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b)

Pyrrosia sheareri (Shearer’s Felt Fern) Without a doubt, the giant Taiwan felt fern is one of the most spectacular in the genus.  The large sword-shaped leaves can reach over 1’ long, forming a spectacular tight evergreen clump. For us, it has proven more difficult to cultivate than most of the other Pyrrosia species. This species thrives in the mild summer climates of the Pacific Northwest. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b)

Pyrrosia subfurfuracea (Red China Tongue Fern) Pyrrosia subfurfuracea 'Red China' is an outstanding, garden-worthy Asian native (up to 6,000' elevation in Bhutan, India, China, and Vietnam) tongue fern that came to the US via the former Chen Yi Nursery in China, and was subsequently named and introduced without species identification by the now defunct Asiatica Nursery. In the garden, Pyrrosia subfurfuracea 'Red China' forms a tight clump of 15" long, stiffly upright dark green, evergreen fronds. As the fronds mature, they develop large rusty orange (red) patches of spores on the back. We've grown Pyrossia 'Red China' outdoors, unprotected in our garden since 2010. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b)

Lepisorus, Microsorum, and Neolepisorus

Lepisorus, Microsorum, and Neolepisorus (Ribbon Ferns) make incredible, slowly spreading woodland garden plants. Like the Pyrrosia they are frequently found growing as epiphytes (on trees) or epilithic (on rocks). They also prefer to be positioned on slopes, at the bases of trees, or along the edges of rocks. They spread to form clumps of elongate strap or ribbon-like leaves from rhizomes produced along the surface of the substrate. Though these are virtually unknown in cultivation, they deserve wide-acclaim and much wider use in our woodland garden landscapes. They produce a very tropical effect in the woodland garden. Though the two genera known as Ribbon Ferns are very similar, those in Lepisorus have their spores in round clusters that are arranged in a single line on each side of the midrib, while those of Neolepisorus are scattered or in several lines with the exception that Neolepisorus fortunei may have only a few clusters out of line with the rest. The three genera we grow in this group have all been considered part of a seemingly unreasonable amount of variation in the same genus: Lepisorus. We are recognizing them as distinct genera until the issue is further resolved.

Lepisorus bicolor (Hardy Ribbon Fern) Our offering of Lepisorus bicolor is the true plant, not the similar Neolepisorus fortunei, which is always mistakenly sold under this name. Hailing from China, India, and Nepal, Lepisorus bicolor can be found from 3,000'-10,000' elevation. The 15" long x 2" wide plastic-feeling upright, glossy evergreen leaves emerge from a slowly spreading rhizome, eventually forming a 2-3' wide patch in the woodland garden. The distinguishing spore pattern only extends from leaf tip down to the center of the frond on the undersurface. A remarkable and bold ribbon fern for any woodland garden where it will be winter hardy. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b)

Lepisorus macrosphereus (Big Sphered Chinese Ribbon Fern) Lepisorus macrosphaerus is a Chinese epiphytic fern that can be found growing on rocks and trees from 3,000' to 10,000' elevation in the Chinese provinces of Guizhou, Hubei, Sichuan, Xizang, and Yunnan. The 16" tall green ribbons are held perpendicular to the pencil lead-thin climbing rhizome. When mature, the leaf backs are prominently adorned with large spherical brown spore cases. We have found Lepisorus macrosphaerus easy to grow in containers and have overwintered it successfully in the ground. It grows on slopes in well-aerated, compost-rich soils. (Hardiness Zone 8b-10b)

Lepisorus pseudoussuriensis ‘Taoshan’ (Taoshan Ribbon Fern) Lepisorus pseudoussuriensis 'Taoshan' is a 2021 Plant Delights/JLBG introduction of a horticulturally unknown fern that we can finally share from our 2008 Taiwan spore collection. We found this narrow-leaf, epiphytic fern growing in rock cracks as we hiked toward Taiwan's Taoshan waterfall at 7,000' elevation. It grows well on a slope in compost rich, well-drained soil in our woodland garden. Lepisorus pseudoussuriensis has made a lovely, small 18" wide clump of pencil-thin (6" long X .25" wide), dark green upright fronds, and has survived upper single digits. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b)

Microsorum buergerianum ‘Datun’ (Datun Dwarf Ribbon Fern) (aka: Microsorium brachylepis ‘Datun’; Lepisorus buergerianum) Though recent papers have slung this species under several genera, the species name buergerianum is at least consistent. We previously followed the taxonomy found in the Ferns and Fern Allies of Taiwan, which synonymized this species within M. brachylepis but this has now been shown to be incorrect and buergerianum prevails. Taxonomy is not for the week of mind or heart! Regardless, this is an absolutely amazing dwarf ribbon fern that we shared for the first time in 2019. Our offering is from our 2008 spore collection from Taiwan's Mt. Datun, where it grew as an epiphyte, creating massive colonies on tree trunks. We have successfully grown it in the ground in Raleigh for over 12 years so feel it is likely a Zone 7b tolerant species. The fronds get burnt back at temperatures below 15 degrees F (-9 degrees C) but quickly reflush in the spring. The 6" long, glossy, wavy green leaves emerge from a ground-level rhizome to form a thick mass of glossy green foliage. Microsorum buergerianum is a superb container plant where it isn't winter hardy in the ground. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b)

Neolepisorus fortunei ‘Green Ribbons’ (Green Ribbons Fortune’s Ribbon Fern) (aka: Drynaria fortunei) We obtained this marvelous ribbon fern from China under the name Lepisorus tosaense, but soon realized it represented Neolepisorus fortunei. We were thrilled to finally have enough to share as a 2017 Plant Delights Nursery introduction. Neolepisorus fortunei 'Green Ribbons' has made a wonderful evergreen groundcover in our woodland garden since 2009. The slowly creeping rhizome forms an 8" tall x 3' wide patch (5 years) of 14" long x 1" wide, upright, arching, glossy green leaves. Dry soils in the winter months are recommended in colder climates. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b)

Neolepisorus truncatus ‘Lemon-Lime’ (Lemon Lime Chinese Tiger-striped Fern) Neolepisorus truncatus 'Lemon Lime' is a 2021 Plant Delights/JLBG introduction of our selection of a treasured and truly unique epiphytic fern that we brought in from China in 2006. Neolepisorus truncatus hails from limestone cliffs around 5,000' elevation in southern China (Guangxi, Guizhou) and north Vietnam. In the garden, Neolepisorus truncatus makes a slow-spreading... and I mean S-L-O-W, evergreen groundcover. The stiff rhizome grows horizontally just below the soil surface, giving rise to 8" tall, thick leathery leaves every few inches that look like a tongue after licking a green and yellow striped popsicle... quite surreal. It's taken us well over a decade to build up enough stock to finally share. Where it isn't reliably winter hardy (north of Zone 8), Neolepisorus truncatus 'Lemon Lime' makes a superb container/hanging basket specimen. (Hardiness Zone 8a-10b)

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