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What is a Lady Fern?

By N. Phipps
Updated May 17, 2024
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Lady fern, Athyrium filix-femina, is a popular type of fern commonly grown in both the home and the garden. While generally seen growing in pots or hanging baskets, this fern adapts well to outdoor woodland gardens that mimic its native habitat. In fact, the deciduous plant can be found growing wild throughout the forests of North America and Eurasia. These ferns are common understory plants in moist woodlands or thickets and found along streams and creek banks as well.

It is not uncommon to find these plants growing together in groups, colonizing is large circles or within the crevices of rocks. As with most ferns, the lady fern grows from a central crown, or base. It also produces spores, which can be found on the undersides of its feathery, yellow-green fronds. Along with its spore production, lady ferns also produce thick rhizomes, which can be easily divided in spring and replanted elsewhere.

Growing lady ferns is quite simple, as they're fairly adaptable given suitable conditions. Other than hanging baskets and containers, these ferns make great accents to wooded borders and shady beds. They can be used for naturalizing as well. Crowns are normally planted just at the soil surface in moist, fertile soil. Lady fern plants also need plenty of shade, although in some areas they will tolerate sun, and require lots of moisture and humid conditions, especially in the home.

These ferns once served as medicinal plants. Native Americans once used lady fern plants for various health reasons. They even cooked and ingested the young shoots, though in raw form they are quite poisonous. Tea was commonly brewed from the fern's leaves and was used for treating lung ailments, as a diuretic, or given to women to ease childbirth pain. The roots could be dried and ground into a powder, which was then used in the treatment of various wounds.

The most common use for lady fern, however, dates far back. An oil extracted from the plant's roots was once used to treat intestinal parasites, such as tapeworms. The downside, of course, was the plant's toxicity. An overdose of this extract could quickly bring about anything from blindness and muscle weakness to coma and eventual death. In addition, many people have experienced skin irritability just from handling the fern.

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