The Cinnamon fern, that encloses the spongelike, brown, fertile fronds in the circle of green ones, gains its greatest size of five feet in roadside runnels or in springy places between boulders in the river woods; yet so accommodating is it that you can use it at the base of your knoll if a convenient rock promises both reasonable dampness and shelter.
The third of the family (Osmunda Claytonia) is known as the Interrupted fern, because in May the fertile black leaflets appear in the middle of the fronds and interrupt the even greenness. This fern will thrive in merely moist soil and is very charming early in the season, but like the other two, out of its haunts, cannot be relied upon after August.
As a fern for deep soil, where walking room can be allowed it, the common brake, or bracken (Pteris aquv-Una) is unsurpassed. It will grow either in sandy woods or moist, and should have a certain amount of high shade, else its broad fronds, held high above the ground umbrella-wise, will curl, grow coarse, and lose the fernlike quality altogether. You can plant this safely in the bit of old orchard that you are giving over to wild asters, black-eyed Susan, and sundrops, but mind you, be sure to take both Larry and Barney, together with a long post-hole spade, when you go out to dig brakes, - they are not things of shallow superficial roots, I can assure you.
A few years ago Evan, Timothy Saunders, and I went brake-hunting, I selecting the groups and the menkind digging great solid turfs a foot or more in depth, in order to be sure the things had native earth enough along to mother them into comfortable growth. Proudly we loaded the big box wagon, for we had taken so much black peat (as the soil happened to be) that not a root hung below and success was certain.
When, on reaching home, in unloading, one turf fell from the cart and crumbled into fragments, to my dismay I found that the long, tough stalk ran quite through the clod and we had no roots at all, but that (if inanimate things can laugh) they were all laughing at us back in the meadow and probably another foot underground. Yet brakes are well worth the trouble of deep digging, for if once established, a waste bit, where little else will flourish, is given a graceful undergrowth that is able to stand erect even though the breeze plays with the little forest as it does with a field of grain. Then, too, the brake patch is a treasury to be drawn from when arranging tall flowers like foxgloves, larkspurs, hollyhocks, and others that have little foliage of • their own.
The fact that the brake does not mature its seeds that lie under the leaf margin until late summer also insures it a long season of sightliness, and when ripeness finally draws nigh, it comes in a series of beautiful mellow shades, varying from straw through deep gold to russet, such as the beech tree chooses for its autumn cloak.
Another plant there is, a low-growing shrub, having long leaves with scalloped edges, giving a spicy odour when crushed or after rain, that I must beg you to plant with these brakes. It is called Sweet-fern, merely by courtesy, from its fernlike appearance, for it is of the bayberry family and first cousin to sweet gale and waxberry.
The digging of this also is a process quite as elusive as mining for brakes; but when once it sets foot in your orchard, and it will enjoy the drier places, you will have a liberal annex to your bed of sweet odours, and it may worthily join lemon balm, mignonette, southernwood, and lavender in the house, though in the garden it would be rather too pushing a companion.
Next, both decorative and useful, comes the Silvery Spleen wort, that is content with shade and good soil of any sort, so long as it is not rank with manure. It has a slender creeping root, but when it once takes hold, it flourishes mightily and after a year or so will wave silver-lined fronds three feet long proudly before you, a rival of Osmunda!
A sister spleen wort is the beautiful Lady fern, whose lacelike fronds have party-coloured stems, varying from straw through pink and reddish to brown, giving an unusual touch of life and warmth to one of the cool green fern tribe. In autumn the entire leaf of this fern, in dying, oftentimes takes these same hues; it is decorative when growing and useful to blend with cut flowers. It naturally prefers woods, but will settle down comfortably in the angle of a house or under a fence, and will be a standby in your wall rockery.
The ferns that seem really to prefer the open, one taking to dry and two to moist ground, are the hay-scented fern (Dicksonia punctilobula), the New York fern (Dryopteris Noveboracencis), and the Marsh Shield-fern. Dicksonia has a pretty leaf of fretwork, and will grow three feet in length, though it is usually much shorter. It is the fern universal here with us, it makes great swales running out from wood edges to pastures, and it rivals the bayberry in covering hillsides; it will grow in dense beds under tall laurels or rhododendrons, border your wild walk, or make a setting of cheerful light green to the stone wall; while if cut for house decoration, it keeps in condition for several days and almost rivals the Maidenhair as a combination with sweet peas or roses.
The New York fern, when of low stature, is one of the many bits of growing carpet of rich cool woods. If it is grown in deep shade, the leaves become too long and spindling for beauty. When in moist ground, quite in the open, or in reflected shade, the fresh young leaves of a foot and under add great variety to the grass and are a perfect setting for table decorations of small flowers. We have these ferns all through the dell. If they are mown down in June, July sees a fresh crop, and their spring green is held perpetual until frost.