Ferns and Hostas for the Perennial Shade Garden

Ferns and Hostas for the Perennial Shade Garden

Our favorite fern and hosta combinations

By Published September 22, 2016 Updated November 23, 2022

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The following article is part of a series geared toward entry-level gardeners. For deep dives into a variety of perennials that we have sold over the decades, visit our archive of in-depth perennial articles written by Tony Avent, Dr. Patrick McMillan, and other Plant Delights and JLBG experts. We also have transcripts of our Gardening Unplugged videos, recorded during our Open Nursery and Garden Days, that have great information for gardeners of all experience levels.

Perennial gardens give you the opportunity to enjoy beautiful plants every year after planting only once. If you have a perennial garden that is in part-sun to light-shade, ferns and hostas are a great choice for adding texture. Hostas also produce beautiful flowers that bloom anytime from June through September, depending on the species.

Ferns and Hostas

Ferns make excellent companions for hosta plants because many will thrive in conditions similar to those of hostas. Hostas are considered shade plants because they do not require direct sunlight in order to thrive. Most ferns also thrive in these conditions and will make beautiful additions to your woodland shade garden. The wide variety of hostas on the market today have only increased the versatility of these amazing perennials. In addition to making excellent companion plants for ferns, they also make great container plants. For some great native ferns, checkout those from the genus Adiantum.

Combining ferns and hostas can create visually appealing and harmonious landscapes, as both plants have different textures, forms, and colors that complement each other. Here are some possible combinations of ferns and hostas for your garden:

Contrasting Foliage

Hosta 'Drop-dead Gorgeous': This hosta, a remarkable creation by Hans Hansen, emerged from the hybridization of two impressive hosta varieties: 'Niagara Falls' and 'Empress Wu.' This offspring grows into an expansive clump, reaching 2.5 feet in height and 7 feet in width, with deeply-veined green leaves adorned by a broad yellow border. The border's hue transitions from yellow to cream and ultimately to white as the growing season progresses. In the summer, the clump is crowned by impressive, tall stalks bearing showy, nearly-white flowers, adding to its striking appeal.

Matteuccia struthiopteris 'The King': A remarkable variant of ostrich fern. This selection stands out for its ability to flourish in the hot and humid southeastern United States, a region where typical ostrich ferns struggle. The tall, feathery fronds of the ostrich fern create a nice contrast with the hosta's foliage.

Shade-Loving Pair

Hosta 'Sum and Substance': Known for its large, chartreuse leaves, Hosta 'Sum and Substance' is hailed as one of the most exceptional hosta varieties ever developed. Its colossal chartreuse clump is visually stunning and is complemented by 30-inch-long, gracefully arched stems bearing pale lavender flowers that hummingbirds adore during midsummer. The round leaves, which can span 2 feet across, contribute to the plant's grandeur. Skilled gardeners can expect clumps to average 6 feet in width, with the potential to exceed 9 feet, making it a standout for boasting in the neighborhood. Notably, 'Sum and Substance' stands out as one of the few tetraploid hostas.

Athyrium filix-femina 'Victoriae': Dubbed the "Queen of Ferns," Athyrium 'Victoriae' is a splendid variety of deciduous lady fern, celebrated during the Victorian fern craze. Its slender pinnae resemble miniature green boomerangs, creating a captivating three-dimensional appearance along the stem. Notably, each pinna terminates with a crested feature, enhancing its already exquisite beauty. This deer-resistant fern stands out as a regal choice in woodland gardens.

Blue and Green Duo

Hosta 'Deep Sea Dive': Introduced by Plant Delights and JLBG in 2023, Hosta 'Deep Sea Dive' is a creation of Hans Hansen resulting from a cross between Hosta 'Neptune' and 'Queen of the Seas'. This exceptional hosta stands out as the finest blue-leaf rippled variety known. Forming a stunning clump measuring 2 feet in height and 6 feet in width, it showcases intensely rippled powder blue leaves on a somewhat upright, vase-shaped plant. Adding to its allure, the clumps are adorned with 40-inch-tall flower scapes during the summer months.

Asplenium scolopendrium 'Cristatum': Its glossy, strap-like fronds add texture and contrast to the hosta's foliage. During the Victorian era in England, fern collectors identified numerous crested types of Hart's-tongue fern; however, only a handful have endured in cultivation. Asplenium scolopendrium 'Cristatum' represents a choice from the European variation of Asplenium scolopendrium. This selection forms a compact rosette of shiny, evergreen, tongue-shaped leaves, each terminating in a crested edge.

Variegated Pairing

Hosta 'Liberty': This variegated hosta boasts impressively thick, dark green leaves highlighted by an exceptionally broad golden yellow border that transitions to cream during the summer. This slow-growing variety forms clumps, which in early summer, produce spikes of lavender flowers that are attractive to hummingbirds.

Polystichum polyblepharum: The Korean Tassel Fern stands out as one of our most captivating ferns, yet its beauty defies easy description. The evergreen foliage, with a unique plastic-like texture, gracefully fans out from a central crown, creating a clump that spans 2 feet in width and is resistant to deer. Every frond is a delicately intricate work of art. Interestingly, the species name "polyblepharum" translates to "many eyelashes," adding to its allure.

Miniature Delights

Hosta 'Blue Biscuit': Introduced in 2021 by Plant Delights and JLBG, Hosta 'Blue Biscuit' is a hybrid originating from crosses among Hosta 'Big Daddy', Hosta 'Silver Bay', and Hosta venusta in 2005. This compact variety forms a tight clump, reaching 6 inches in height and 15 inches in width. It retains its blue hue well into the summer, and even as the blue color fades, the plant maintains an attractive appearance.

Asplenium x ebenoides:  A unique fern hybrid found in Alabama, arising from the natural union of two native species, Asplenium platyneuron and Asplenium rhizophyllum. This fern forms compact clumps, about 6 inches tall and 10 inches wide, suitable for rock gardens. It thrives in slightly moist alkaline soils. Notably, the influence of the walking fern genes occasionally leads to the production of plantlets on the leaf tips once the fern is well-established.

Dramatic Duo

Hosta 'Empress Wu': Hosta 'Empress Wu' holds the distinction of being the largest hosta available. This colossal variety likely derives its size from a blend of Hosta sieboldiana and Hosta nigrescens in its heritage. Young plants, just three years old, are already robust at 3 feet tall and 6 feet wide, anticipated to reach a mature stature of 4 feet tall and an expansive 9 feet wide. The glossy green leaves, initially emerging as blue-green in spring, form extensive clumps. These impressive clumps bear 5-foot-tall stalks adorned with light lavender flowers in June (in North Carolina). Notably, this giant hosta is named in honor of the late Chinese Empress Wu.

Osmunda cinnamomea (Cinnamon Fern): This deciduous native fern thrives across the eastern US states, excluding Texas and Oklahoma. Growing in stately 3-foot-tall clumps, it prospers in moist soils and typical garden settings, making it an excellent addition to woodlands. Its fertile fronds emerge as cinnamon-colored spikes in spring, rising above the sterile foliage. In moist conditions, the fern can expand to 3 feet tall and wide, while optimal growth can result in clumps as large as 6 feet. This impressive US native plant stands out, with recent DNA findings suggesting its distant relation to other osmunda ferns, potentially warranting its placement under a new genus, Osmundastrum.

Subtle Elegance

Hosta 'Halcyon': This hosta holds a prominent place as one of the most renowned and beloved hostas ever. Its clump of round blue leaves, reaching 3 feet wide and pointed in youth, is celebrated for its exceptional blue hue, durability, and robust growth. This variety maintains its color effectively, displaying remarkable substance. Accompanied by a profusion of blue-lavender flowers in summer, 'Halcyon' continues to capture admiration and recognition in the hosta world.

Athyrium 'Ghost': A robust and low-maintenance hybrid, this deer-resistant fern is a cross between Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum 'Pictum') and Southern lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina). It beautifully merges the strengths of both parents, presenting a rigidly upright form that reaches 2-3 feet in height, adorned with the silvery-grey foliage characteristic of Athyrium niponicum. This fern's formal appearance opens up various design options in woodland gardens. It serves excellently as a backdrop for hostas or an intriguing addition to a haunted garden theme.

Woodland Beauty

Hosta 'Cathedral Windows': This hosta is a tetraploid variation of the impressive Hosta 'Stained Glass.' Its eye-catching features include large, round, golden leaves measuring 9-10 inches, forming a dome shape and encircled by a 3-inch-wide border of dark green. The clumps expand to 3 feet in width and produce tall 40-inch stalks in late summer, adorned with sizable, highly fragrant flowers, creating a delightful gathering spot for hummingbirds.

Osmunda regalis:The deciduous Osmunda regalis, or royal fern, stands out as a striking and unique fern with bold, textured appearance. Its light green, leathery leaves lend a tropical feel to gardens. In moist conditions, it can grow up to 6 feet tall and 3 feet wide, although 4 feet in height is more common. Unlike other ferns that hide their reproductive fronds, royal fern's sexual fronds are openly displayed. Osmunda regalis 'Purpurascens' is a spore strain featuring purple-bronze emerging fronds and stem, with smaller pinnules, resulting in an airy texture.

When planning your combinations, consider factors such as light requirements, soil conditions, and the overall aesthetic you want to achieve. Additionally, be mindful of the growth habits of each plant to ensure they complement each other as they mature.

Plants for shade are good choices for areas that surround homes and fences. You can plant them by porches, decks or trees and expect them to thrive very well. We also offer plants that require full sunlight. The butterfly bush is a popular choice. This plant needs sunlight every day and when cared for properly will reward you with an abundance of butterflies when it blooms. Whether you are planting a full garden or you simply need a few plants for a small area, we are sure to have the right perennials for your gardening needs.

Creating the Perfect Fern and Hosta Garden

Both ferns and hostas make great shade plants and the lacy texture of ferns contrasts with the wider and often variegated leaves of hostas. When planted together, the dense foliage creates a tropical feel. Try planting them together along a border or on the top of a stone wall to soften the edges. Both hostas and ferns can be planted en masse to create a striking effect. Try alternating variegated hosta varieties with non-variegated to draw the eye across the landscape of the garden.

Ferns and hostas are great but don't forget to include other perennials with intriquing foliage and colorful flowers that peak at different times of the year. Anyone can make a garden look great in the spring but it takes a true master to have a garden with interest all year-round. In nature, hostas can often be found with daylillies and many varieties perform suprisingly well in part-sun conditions. Hellebores are late-winter flowering woodland plants that are great to fill in spots between your other perennials and they bloom at a time when most non-evergreen plants are dormant. Jack-in-the-pulpit is another interesting woodland perennial that produces colorful pitcher-shaped flowers.

Plant Delights has a wide selection of ferns and hostas for sale as well as other perennial flowers and plants. We have tropical plants such as banana tree and others that will make your garden unique and native plants that are indigenous to the U.S. All of our plants are excellent performers when planted and maintained properly, and will increase the beauty of any garden area. We hope you will browse our website and see for yourself the variety of perennials that we offer for sale. You can also visit us in person during our Open House Days or contact us directly at Plant Delights Nursery, Inc. for assistance in choosing the right perennials for your gardening needs.

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