Lady Fern

Athyrium filix-femina

Description & Overview

Lady Fern is a Wisconsin native, clump-forming perennial with long, upright-arching fronds and light green stalks that contrast beautifully in a shaded environment. As a low-maintenance perennial, Lady Fern is also deer resistant and can tolerate drier conditions than most ferns. Grown in masses or spread along a wood line, this hardy fern will be a staple among other low native and taller flowering plants in dappled sunlight.

Core Characteristics

Mature Height: 2-3 feet
Mature Spread: 2 feet
Growth Rate: Moderate
Growth Form: Arching, clump-forming
Light Requirements: Partial Shade
Site Requirements: Prefers acidic, moist well-drained soil
Flower: Not a flowering plant, reproduces by spores
Bloom Period: Spores usually released late Summer to Fall
Foliage: Deciduous, bright green fronds with leaflets.
Fall Color: Not significant
Fruit Notes: Reproduces by spores

Suggested Uses:

The best site for Lady Fern is in moist soil where it receives no more than four hours of sunlight a day. The area can have the potential for a short dry spell, usually between rocks or along the edge of foundations, but it prefers the soil to be moist year-round. Adiantum filix-femina is typically found along deciduous woodlands where it receives root protection from fallen leaves and dappled sunlight from the canopy of the trees above.

Lady Fern is a taller clump-forming ground cover that will spread moderately by shallow rhizomes underground. The bright green foliage will provide visual interest in areas that are often dark. It can tolerate more sunlight than an average fern; however, the soil must stay moist during hotter days.

Salable size #1 container. Picture taken June 1.

Wildlife Value:

Lady Fern provides value to smaller mammals on the landscape floor by creating protection from overhead predators. The spent stalks of the fern can be used by birds for nesting materials. Although the wildlife benefits seem minuscule in comparison to other native plants, Lady Fern aids many of our native mammals, amphibians, and insects who need shelter in the summer months from the heat and predators.

Maintenance Tips:

Lady Fern is a low-maintenance addition to shady landscapes. No fall clean-up work is necessary for it to revive next spring. Spent fronds may be disposed of after the first frost if it seems unsightly. Dividing the clumps in spring and replanting at the soil level may be necessary after multiple years to accommodate for the plant sinking into the soil. Signs and symptoms of stress are generally easy to read on the Lady fern and can be displayed as browning, curling fronds, and discoloration. The most important aspects of care to consider are the amount of light the plant is receiving and the amount of water. The more light the fern receives, the more water it needs, otherwise it can dry out.


Lady Fern has no serious insect or disease problems. The humid environment that the plant is adapted to may cause fungal issues as a result of high humidity. This will usually be seen as white powdery mildew; in which case, the best form of remedy is to allow the area to dry out. Some insects, such as aphids and moth larvae will feed on the young leaves, but this won’t affect the health of the plant.

Adiantum filix-femina has been proven to be deer resistant and rabbit tolerant.

Leaf Lore:

The taxonomy of ferns has roots in long-held ideals of what is determined to be a man’s or a woman’s trait. There is a ‘male fern’ (Dryopteris spp) which is often thicker and more abrasive with hairs or scales on its stems. As opposed to the Lady fern, which has soft-textured stems that tend to break more easily in high winds. With that being said, many ‘lady’ and ‘male’ ferns don’t always completely match their disposition, which emphasizes the modern principle of choosing a plant for the site, regardless of its gender!

Companion Plants:

Lady Fern is a great addition when planted with Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica), Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum), Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Anise-Hyssop (Agastache scrophulariifolia) and plenty of other dominant native perennials. Lady Fern can be mixed with shrubs, such as Goatsbeard (Aruncus spp.), Spikenard (Aralia racemosa), Snakeroot (Actaea spp) and shade-loving hydrangeas.

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