Amidst spring color, unfurling ferns offer different kind of beauty

May 17, 2013 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

The May landscape at Winterthur is reminiscent of a child’s finger painting. Here, a bright splash of red and coral from azaleas. There, luminescent lavender on lilacs and phlox. Throw in a cheerful dab of gold from Rhododendron luteumand a dash of pastel pinks from dogwoods, too.

Amidst this riot of color, Linda Eirhart was a woman on a mission one recent morning. Oblivious to the rainbow hues around her, Eirhart drove a golf cart down Winterthur’s pathways, searching for new ferns unfurling their fronds.

fernsAt first glance, one might wonder why Eirhart, Winterthur’s assistant director of horticulture, would bother chasing down ferns. Unlike spring blooms, there’s no immediate wow factor. All the ferns are pretty small now, even the ones that will ultimately reach two to three feet high. It’s easy to overlook a tiny fern growing just a few inches from the ground. However, if you crouch down for a closer look, you’ll enjoy a sight as spectacular in its own right as the brash blooms of spring.

Take, for example, emerging hay-scented ferns. These clusters of chartreuse apostrophes twirling in the breeze resemble some bizarre plant from a Dr. Seuss book. Another fern that looks other-worldly now is cinnamon fern. Its fronds are tightly wound in a circular clump, encased in white hairs.

“Ferns are a real favorite of mine,” says Eirhart. “They’re fascinating as they emerge. Then, once they unfurl and mature, they provide interesting foliage and texture throughout the growing season.”

Not to mention the way they seem to lower the thermometer once the steamy hot days of summer arrive.

“Ferns create a cooling, peaceful effect in a landscape,” says Sue Barton, UD Cooperative Extension specialist for ornamental horticulture. “The March Bank at Winterthur is a great example of this cooling effect.”

The March Bank’s main claim to fame is its spring color. In the early 1900s, H.F. du Pont began planting thousands of bulbs on a hillside near his home that he dubbed the March Bank. He mixed ostrich, cinnamon and New York ferns amidst the bulbs for season-long interest. Du Pont would go on to inherit Winterthur from his father and, a short time after that, establish the property as a museum.

Come summer, the ferns that du Pont planted will create a thick, lush carpet of green in a range of colors, shapes and sizes. There’s the almost chartreuse green of the New York fern, which contrasts with the multi-colored hues of the cinnamon fern. The cinnamon fern has two types of fronds – large green sterile ones and smaller fertile ones that start out bright green and soon turn a cinnamon color. Some of the taller varieties include the ostrich fern, which can reach 5 feet and the New York fern, which tops out at 2 feet in ideal conditions.

“I love ferns,” says Chris Strand, director of garden and estate at Winterthur. “Growing up in Colorado, ferns weren’t common. We didn’t get 39 inches of rain annually like Delaware gets, nor did we have the right soil conditions for ferns. When I moved East, I was amazed by all the ferns here. It’s beautiful now, when the bluebells are fading on the March Bank and the emerging ferns are coming in. All the fronds waving in the breeze look like waves on the ocean.”

Delaware has 67 native ferns, according to Bill McAvoy, a botanist with the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. Winterthur doesn’t have all those ferns but it’s certainly got a lot. In addition to the March Bank, there are good collections of ferns in the children’s garden, Enchanted Woods; as well as in the Pinetum. And what was once a small fern collection at the Visitor’s Center has been given a big boost recently. Over the past five years, Eirhart, her staff, and volunteers have added thousands of new ferns to this area.

The University of Delaware Botanic Gardens is another great place to search for unfurling ferns now and enjoy their cooling presence later this summer. There are painted and Christmas ferns in the Dunham Garden, at the main entrance; autumn and Christmas ferns by the Creamery ice cream shop; and still more Christmas ferns in the native garden.

In shady or partial shady conditions, ferns can be the workhorse of the garden. They can be used as groundcover in places where few other plants will thrive and also spotlighted as specimen plantings, notes Barton. Most varieties are low maintenance, drought tolerant and deer resistant. A few ferns will even tolerate full sun, as long as they have adequate moisture.

Learn more

On June 19, Linda Eirhart will lead a fern workshop that covers the basics of fern botany and cultivation as well as an introduction to the best ferns for this area. 1:30 p.m.-3:30 p.m. Winterthur Museum and Gardens. To register, call 888-4600.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.

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Bloom season kicks into high gear for garden enthusiasts

April 11, 2013 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

In April, bloom season kicks into high gear in Delaware. In fact, it might be the single best month to get outside and enjoy the views at the area’s world-class gardens.

At Winterthur, the Winterhazel Walk will soon be the star of the show, reports Linda Eirhart, assistant director of horticulture for the museum, which features a 60-acre naturalistic garden in the midst of nearly 1,000 acres of land.

Delaware bloom season kicks off“The cold weather has held things back but before long the Winterhazel Walk will dazzle with its combination of soft yellow winter hazel and the warm lavender of Korean rhododendron. This is under planted with hellebores, which are still going strong,” she says.

These species are non-native but many of Winterthur’s native plants will soon be in bloom, too. Bloodroot is a sweet little perennial with pure white, cup-shaped flowers. You can find it in Azalea Woods and other wooded areas and thickets throughout the property.

Spring beauty is another little charmer, sporting white petals with stripes that vary from pale pink to bright pink. Like bloodroot, it grows in woodlands. Pay attention to weather conditions during your visit to Winterthur. If it’s warm and sunny, spring beauty will open its petals but on a cloudy day or at night the petals close up and nod downward.

Winterthur’s bluebells aren’t in bloom quite yet but the buds have appeared and will soon burst into bloom. Eirhart says that bluebell is her favorite native wildflower.

“I love the bluebell’s shades of blues and the touch of pink and purple you can get in the blossoms,” she says. “Between the color of the flower buds and the last fading flowers, there is a good length of time of color interest.”

Sue Barton also is a fan of Virginia bluebells, which grow in clusters near the creek on her property. “It’s fun to come upon a mass of bluebells while walking in the woods,” says Barton, who is ornamental horticulture specialist for University of Delaware Cooperative Extension.

But it’s flowering redbuds, not bluebells, that signal that spring has sprung to Barton.

“The redbud has an extremely colorful, dark purple or pink flower and an unusual habit of flowers borne directly on the stem,” she says. “I like the ‘Forest Pansy’ cultivar because of its attractive bronze foliage.”

This small native tree grows wild in many of Delaware woodlands. As you buzz down I-95, check out the large stand of redbuds by the roadside, just south of Wilmington. For a more leisurely setting to enjoy redbud blooms, head to the University of Delaware Botanic Gardens. You can find flowering redbuds there, and a whole lot more.

“In bloom, or soon to bloom, are a number of natives, including silverbells, fothergilla, serviceberry, redbud, dogwood and pawpaw,” says Claudia Bradley, nursery coordinator for the UD Botanic Gardens.

She is particularly fond of fothergilla and tends to it not only in UD’s gardens but also in her own home garden. “I always look forward to seeing the fothergilla in flower,” says Bradley. “I like its bottlebrush white flowers now and, then, in fall, its awesome red color.”

Mt. Cuba Center is another great place to check out spring blooms, especially since it’s expanding its public hours. Starting April 19, you won’t need a reservation to visit on Fridays and Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (From May 3 to July 26, the gardens will stay open until 7 p.m. on Fridays.)  Guided tours will still be available by reservation on other days and times.

Chilly weather delayed some of the blooms at Mt. Cuba, just as it as at Winterthur and other area gardens. But now that it has warmed up, native spring ephemerals will soon emerge in Mt. Cuba’s woodlands, reports Jeanne Frett, a research horticulturist at the center. Look for flowering liverleaf, trout lily, bloodroot, rue-anemone, cut-leaf toothwort and Dutchman’s breeches.

Trees and shrubs also are starting to bloom at Mt. Cuba. If you’d like some April flowering shrubs in your own yard, Frett suggests American bladdernut and spicebush.

“Both of these are found locally in the woodlands and at Mt. Cuba Center,” says Frett. “They’re very appropriate choices for creating your own naturalistic gardens using locally native species.”

Spicebush is one of Delaware’s most common native shrubs. On the female plants, small clusters of yellow flowers appear now, and later develop into red fruit. American bladdernut isn’t the most beautiful April bloomer but it could be the most interesting.

“More of a curiosity than a specimen shrub, the American bladdernut has bell-shaped flowers that develop into three-lobed, inflated, brown papery capsules later in the season,” says Frett.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.

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