The male fern populates my nightmares. They cluster together in corners and under shrubs like nests of massive spiders, with their legs pulled tightly into their bodies ready to pounce. The rachis, the ‘spine’ of the frond is covered with hairy brown scales or ramenta near the base which only adds to their arachnid character. Although it is not carnivorous like a Venus fly trap, it is easy to imagine it catching frogs and mice, grabbing them with its fronds, closing over them, embracing them in a slow proteolytic death.
Dryopteris affinis is semi-evergreen, but in the garden it is best to cut the fronds down in autumn as they grow tatty with age and break in the winter storms. This reveals the coppery crowns which look so spider-like. It also prepares one of the great anticipations of the gardening year. In spring, the rising turgor unfurls the crozier fronds with all the beauty of a flower slowly opening over a fortnight. As the fronds grow around a central rhizome, the fern in summer is a handsome ‘shuttlecock’ standing proudly to as much as 1.5m/5′ tall.
Dryopteris affinis is an unusual edition of these postcards as it is native to the British Isles. It grows in the wetter parts of western France too and even down into the Caucasus region, but the further south it goes and the drier it gets, the higher is climbs up the hillsides. Moisture, both in the ground and in the air, is its determining factor. With plenty of water it will grow in all soils and in full sun, although in the wild it is most frequently found in deciduous woodland. It is useful in the garden to bring height and texture to that difficult damp, shady corner. It can be a useful foil behind Helleborus niger or Cyclamen coum too.
The male fern is not male, of course. It is hermaphrodite like most other ferns. Its gendered common name is a reflection of historic social attitudes. It is a male fern with sturdy, upright fronds, coarse pinnae, and a hairy bottom. The ‘lady ferns’ of genus Athyrium are more delicately constituted and less hirsute.