Pellaea is a group of small to mid-sized ferns usually found on moist rocky cliffs, slopes, and bluffs, mostly from the Southwest US, Mexico, South Africa, the Pacific Islands, and Australia. There are roughly 40 species of pellaea but only a few are available for use in temperate gardens or as houseplants. Pellaea ferns are classified as sun ferns because they grow in open sunny sites and are closely related to another sun fern genus, Cheilanthes. They have evolved to be quite drought and sun tolerant, making great specimens for the rock garden.
Compared to a typical woodland fern, some folks are hard pressed to believe pellaea are really ferns. The genus name Pellaea comes from the Greek "phellos", meaning dusky. This refers to the bluish-grey leaves of some pellaea species. The common name, brake, is a variant of a medieval term for all ferns (bracken).
As you might expect from a plant that lives on sunny rocks, pellaea is drought-tolerant and requires excellent soil drainage. Regular watering during the growing season will keep pellaea ferns looking their best.
More Information About Pellaea
Pellaea is a genus of around 40-50 species of primarily dryland sun ferns, commonly known as the cliff brakes. You may be wondering: why we say 40-50 species rather than an exact number? The reason is that fern taxonomy is a mess and some things that look alike may not actually be related and it appears that several things we have called Pellaea in the past may not be Pellaea in the future. Oh, those taxonomists! The common name is quite appropriate as Pellaea typically grow on rocky outcroppings in canyons, on slopes, and on bluffs. As currently understood the species are native from coast to coast nearly everywhere there are rocks in the United States and from Canada to the Andes in South America; they are also present in Africa, eastern Australia, and New Zealand. Most members of the genus Pellaea are small and thus perfect for rock gardens though some are quite tricky to establish. The plant known as Green Cliff Brake is very easy to grow but most other members will require special care and sighting within your rock garden. They like to be planted with their rhizome tucked right under a rock and provided with excellent drainage. They do not like to dry out when establishing but will tolerate prolonged dry periods once they get their rhizomes going.
Pellaea Fern Varieties
Pellaea atropurpurea (Purple Cliff Brake) This fern grows in full sun and is native to all but 8 states of the continental U.S. It is almost always found growing in fissures in limestone outcrops but also occasionally on amphibolite or marble. Because of its preferred habitat this quirky little fern prefers rocky alkaline soils, where it is tolerant of everything except being too wet and too crowded. The black-green upright leaves form a delightful small 10" tall clump (rarely taller)—perfect for the rock garden. If you establish a plant, it often will spread via spores to other spots within the garden or even on masonry. Thousands which have done so can be seen at the Biltmore Estate and Gardens in Asheville. (Zones 5-8)
Pellaea calomelanos (Dwarf Blue Table Fern) This cute little African fern makes a delightful small clump to 8" tall by 8" wide, composed of black stipes holding powder blue angular pinnae. In the wild, we found these growing on bright sunny rocky slopes. We have found this to be a superb rock garden fern where it is winter hardy. (Zones 8-10)
Pellaea ovata (Zig-zag Cliff Brake) This splendidly unusual desert sun fern has proven to be quite easy to grow in our garden. This darling deciduous fern has a zig-zag rachis to 15" tall, adorned with thumb-shaped, blue-grey leaves that point downward. Preferring dry, rocky sites in the wild, this fern grows in both alkaline and acid soils. While Zig-Zag Cliff Brake isn't difficult to grow, it is not for beginners either. (Zones 7b-9 at least)
Pellaea viridis (Green Cliff Brake) This is a fern with an identity crisis. Some taxonomists claim this as Pellaea viridis, but others have judged it to be Cheilanthes viridis and now it appears it isn’t closely related to either genus and will likely end up in a new genus! Regardless, it is one of many little-known dryland ferns from South Africa that have yet to be properly explored for garden use. Green Cliff Brake is found up to 6,000' elevation throughout the few remaining woodlands in South Africa's Eastern Cape Province. So far, in our garden, it has made an easy-to-grow 20" tall clump of stiff, upright, rich green, bold-textured, deciduous foliage. This is a cliff brake for beginners as it seems to tolerate most anything you throw at it. (Zones 7b-9 at least)
Pellaea wrightiana (Wright’s Cliff Brake) This unique dryland fern has been a real star in our rock garden. The 6" stiffly upright fronds are adorned with rigid, glaucous blue-green leaves. Pellaea wrightiana prefers well-drained neutral-to-alkaline soils with only occasional moisture once established. In the wild, Pellaea wrightiana are almost always found at the base of a large rock, where moisture can be found during times of extreme drought. Though it is common in the American Southwest it has also found its way to isolated locations on steep, south-facing slopes in North and South Carolina (Zones 6-8)
Plant Delights Nursery has a huge collection of over 1,000 ferns planted in our gardens. We also have one of the largest and most esoteric selections of ferns for sale in the US. If you are looking to buy ferns, especially a rare, cold hardy, garden fern, Plant Delights should be your first stop. Providing beauty and texture to the garden, ferns are great garden plants and a staple of any well-designed garden. When you are ready to buy pellaea for your garden, check out our online offering of pellaea for sale.