The Expert Guide to Pteris Ferns

The Expert Guide to Pteris Ferns

Brake Ferns, Table Ferns, and Ribbon Ferns

By and Published January 04, 2023

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The genus name Pteris is derived from the Greek “pteron”, meaning wing or feather and referring to the fact that this fern, like many others, has fronds that roughly resemble the feathered wing or feathers of birds. The entire group of ferns, known as Pteridophytes, is based on the plume or wing-shaped fronds that typify ferns. The Greek root is also used as a common prefix or suffix in many fern names (e.g., Pteridium, Thelypteris, Dryopteris).  The genus is native to tropical and sub-tropical areas from Crete to New Zealand. There are 250 to 300 species of Pteris commonly called Table, Ribbon, or Brake Ferns. Brake is a middle English word for fern and is the singular form of bracken fern, which was once considered the same genus as Pteris. Pteris also lends its name to the family of ferns to which it belongs, Pteridaceae. Like all members of the family, this fern produces spores in lines around the very margin of the leaves. If you compare the placement of spores to others in the family you can find the similarities - think of maidenhair ferns, cliff brakes, etc. One species, Pteris vittata, can hyperaccumulate arsenic in its tissues and is used in phytoremediation projects.

This genus of ferns is usually grown as houseplants because they are primarily native in tropical and subtropical regions of the world. Most Pteris are not considered hardy north of Zone 8, but our mission has been to search for and introduce higher elevation hardy forms that will survive in regions with cold winter climates.

Pteris actiniopteris 'Silver Illusion' (Silver Illusion Dwarf Brake Fern) Pteris ‘Silver Illusion’ is a lovely silver leaf form of the dwarf Chinese Brake Fern, Pteris actiniopteris.  In the wild, Pteris actiniopteris almost always grows on very well-drained, but moist vertical cliffs. Expect this to mature at only 6” tall x 1’ wide. Though we succeeded in overwintering this plant during mild winters, it doesn’t appear to quite be hardy in zone 7. (Hardiness Zone 8a-10b, at least)

Pteris cretica ‘Marianna’ (Common Ribbon Fern) Pteris cretica has a very wide range (mostly Asian) but has naturalized on the Gulf coast from Florida west to Louisiana. Our plants were originally encountered in the Florida Panhandle, just north of Marianna, Florida. Here it has naturalized to grow beside the native Needle Palms in a very undisturbed area. We now have spore-grown plants from this population and are making those available for folks who want to grow or study the differences between this and other populations. In appearance, they seem identical to other forms. We are still conducting hardiness trials on this form, but most Panhandle plants have hardiness that usually reaches Zone 6 or 7. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b)

Pteris cretica var. cretica 'Ping Wu' (Ping-Wu Common Ribbon Fern) This fascinating Hans Hansen selection (coll #HH03CH099) comes from 3500' elevation near Ping Wu in China's Sichuan Province. This dwarf, 18" tall by 3' wide plant was growing amongst other normal 2'+ tall individuals. Even when grown from spores, it has retained the rock garden-size dwarf habit and extraordinarily narrow fronds compared to the typical species. The five-fingered leaves adorn the 1' wide clump on this easy-to-grow fern. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b, guessing)

Pteris cretica var. laeta (Broad Common Ribbon Fern) The widespread Ribbon Fern has a typical form with very narrow, spidery pinnules but as the name suggests this form has much broader leaflets with an undulate margin. It also attains a much more robust height (to 3’) as it forms slowly spreading clumps in the garden. The Broad Common Ribbon Fern ranges from Turkey to Japan and south to Indonesia. Like the typical variety, it often grows on outcrops or in shallow soils and though it likes to stay moist, it prefers well-draining woodland soils. We have found most forms of this variety that we have trialed to be quite hardy and beautiful additions to the garden. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b, possibly colder)

Pteris cretica var. laeta 'Western Hills' (Western Hills Common Ribbon Fern) Our collection (A1C-029) of the tropical ribbon fern, Pteris cretica var. nervosa, was made in 1996 at 9,000' elevation in the Western Hills region of Yunnan, China. For us, this selection has proved to be amazingly winter hardy (no damage at 9ºF). In 10 years, this vigorous grower has made a 5' wide by 3' tall, deciduous clump of light green leaves that resemble very long fingers. In early fall, the fertile fronds arise like an upright flagpole from the center of the clump. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b, possibly colder)

Pteris multifida (Spider Brake Fern, Huguenot Fern) (syn: Pteris serrulata) The spider brake fern has narrow, skeleton-like, thick green leaves and makes a nice 18" tall by 2' wide clump. Though it resembles Common Ribbon Fern its pinnae extend along the rachis as a wing. It is occasionally found throughout the Southeast where it naturalizes in such inhospitable sites as mortar joints, rock walls, and abandoned vehicles. The common name here in the Carolinas is Huguenot Fern which received its name from the fact that it grew abundantly on the masonry of Huguenot structures in the Charleston region. This is a very easy fern for a sunny to partly shaded garden location where a "spidery" texture is needed. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b)

Pteris multifida ‘Jade Waterfall’ (Jade Waterfall Dwarf Spider Brake Fern) Pteris ‘Jade Waterfall’ is a dwarf form that we originally purchased from wild collected Chinese material and have produced by spore.  For us, it makes a very nice dwarf 8” tall x 15” wide evergreen clumps (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b)

Pteris multifida ‘Korean Petticoat’ (Korean Petticoat Spider Brake Fern) We first saw this delightful, crested form in 2006 at Harriet and Wade Mahlke's Alabama garden. Wade found the fern growing in the forest near Gyeong Ju, South Korea during a 1997 visit, and was able to gather spores. His find closely resembles the widely cultivated Pteris 'Wilsonii', but has been winter hardy here since 2007, so we have assigned it the cultivar name 'Korean Petticoat' and it became a 2013 Plant Delights/JLBG introduction. We initially assumed it was a crested form of Pteris cretica but it shows all the characteristics of the winged pinnae that are typical of P. multifida. For us, Pteris multifida 'Korean Petticoat' has formed an 18" tall x 30" wide clump of narrow, serrate light fronds, each ending in a frilly petticoat. This fern is so cool, that I'd grow it as a house plant if it wasn't winter hardy.

Pteris oshimensis (Oshima Brake Fern) Oshima Brake Fern is almost completely unknown in cultivation. We grow this plant from wild collected spores from the New York Botanical Garden. The species grows naturally in Vietnam, eastern China and Japan. This Pteris breaks the mold of what we expect a brake fern to look like — it more closely resembles an Arachniodes than other hardy brakes. The relationship to other brake ferns is given away when you note the marginal lines of sori on the undersides of the pinnae. We have found this plant to be quite hardy and it thrives under standard woodland garden conditions for us. The bold, dark-green leaves are 1-1.5’ long and arching. It is slowly spreading and forms a 1’ tall x 3’ wide clump in 5 years. (Hardiness Zone 7b-9b, perhaps colder)

Pteris vittata (Ladder Brake) This fern is often found in association with P. multifida growing on masonry in Southern towns like Charleston and Savannah. It forms long, plume-like, pinnately compound dark green fronds that are only a foot or so long when growing on exposed masonry but may attain lengths of up to 3’ in the garden! The material that is naturalized in the Southeast is not generally hardy for us and likely from spore unintentionally transported from tropical locations via shipping during the colonial period. We have sought out several hardy collections and selections of this bold and beautiful fern that are fully hardy here in Raleigh, NC.

Pteris vittata 'Benzilan' (Benzilan Giant Chinese Brake Fern) (coll. # A1C-202C) This amazing fern was collected on our 1996 China trip in the town of Benzilan in Yunnan. Growing on a dry rocky cliff, it was spindly and less than 1' tall, but in our garden, the fern has made a stunning deciduous clump to 8' wide by 3' tall in 10 years. Each dark green frond boasts stunning, simple pinnae on a magnificent clump. Pteris vittata will come up from spores that land in inhospitable places such as rock walls and other limestone outcrops. This is a dramatically more winter hardy form of the species. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b, at least)

Pteris vittata 'Taoyan' (Taoyuan Giant Chinese Brake Fern) Pteris ‘Taoyuan’ is a Wade Roitsch selection from 3600’ elevation Taoyuan, Sichuan, China that has proven to be as winter hardy as Pteris ‘Benzilan’. Though perhaps a bit less robust than ‘Benzilan’, for the most part both are stunning large plants with enormous design value. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b, at least)

Pteris wallichiana 'Hualien Giant' (Hualien Giant Wallich’s Table Fern) The king of the genus Pteris this fern can reach enormous proportions in the proper environment. This was one of the most impressive ferns we encountered on our 2008 expedition to Taiwan. At this 7,900' elevation site in Hualien County, Pteris wallichiana made dramatic, tropical looking, 8' tall specimens with bizarrely branching fronds. Pteris wallichiana 'Hualien Giant', a 2014 Plant Delights/JLBG introduction, has been winter hardy in our zone 7b garden since 2009, where it only reaches 4' tall. Pteris wallichiana does spread a bit via thick underground rhizomes, so plant accordingly. While it has tolerated dry sites in our trials, it has grown much faster in rich, slightly moist organic soils. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10b, at least)

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