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Have you been bitten by the tree fern bug yet?
This bite isn't something you might suffer from a nibbling plant pest, but an emotional desire to share part of a growing horticultural quirk. Tree ferns are rather amazing, elegant palm-like plants with huge fronds and they have become highly desirable. Why do we love tree ferns?
Dicksonia antarctica, which is perhaps the best known tree fern, is said to be one of the world's oldest plants. No wonder we love it so much! It is native to Australia and Tasmania and is extremely slow growing, hence the rather high price tag. In a world of fast-moving madness it's comforting to learn that not everything moves at the speed of light. These ferns grow about 2.5cm in a year. Or if conditions are ideal there might be a growth spurt which could result in about 30cms of growth over 10 years.
Where do tree ferns come from?
These are rainforest under-storey plants where it's shady and damp and it's clear to see that they therefore wouldn't be happy in strong sunlight.
What do tree ferns need?
So what do these ancient ferns need in order to survive here in the UK? Firstly, they like to be positioned in full to partial shade. Secondly, they need protection in the winter. Thirdly, these are plants that don't like to dry out. The trunk and crown are the vital areas which need to be watered regularly. The trunk needs to stay damp, even in winter. What's more, it's important to protect the crown of this plant from damage as all new growth comes from the top of the stem.
How do you plant a tree fern?
Planting a tree fern is a bit of a tricky business. Not because it takes particular skill, but rather that it's not quite what we're used to. The roots of the tree actually form the trunk. This should be placed in humus-rich soil which ideally will have a neutral to acid PH reading. A tree fern needs to be planted at the same level that it comes out of its pot. In other words, don't be tempted to stick too much of the trunk down into the soil.
After the first year or so, a tree fern will enjoy a liquid feed to the fronds and trunk around once per month during the spring and summer. The plant actually absorbs nutrients through the trunk and crown so this is the key to good health. It does, however, benefit from being encouraged to find its own food during the first year, which will ultimately strengthen the root system.
Tree fern logs in winter
If you purchase your tree fern in winter, it might arrive looking rather like a bare log. In this case, soak the base of the trunk before planting it just low enough into the soil in order to allow the plant to stand upright. You would be wise to water it every day until the fronds begin to emerge. These are plants that look great next to a woodland-type stream or pond and they team well with ferns and woodland plants. In the UK it might be wise to bring your tree fern under shelter for the winter. If it's to stay out in the garden you can place a handful of straw in the crown and fold the fronds over the top before wrapping with horticultural fleece. Dicksonia antarctica is, in fact, said to be hardy down to about -10 degrees, but the foliage usually dies back at around -2 degrees.
How to propagate a tree fern
Fancy having a go at propagation? It's the spores on the undersides of the fronds that you need to look for. Also offsets (young plants) which develop from the trunk. However, a tree fern doesn't reach reproductive maturity until around 25 years old, so you might have to wait a while!
Watch a video about tree ferns here: https://youtu.be/0zYie_HfKsg
Hardy palms for the UK climatePalms, as you might imagine, are not native to the UK. But there are some that are considered to be relatively hardy. Which palm trees are hardy?
- Chamaerops humilis, otherwise known as the dwarf or Mediterranean fan palm. This will tolerate temperatures down to around -12 degrees C, or even lower. It has fan-shaped leaves and will grow up to 3m tall.
- Chamaerops humilis is a fan palm which is fairly hardy in the UK.
- Trachycarpus fortunei, or the Chusan palm. This palm has fan-shaped leaves and can withstand temperatures as low as -12 degrees C, although the fronds tend to be damaged by winds. It can reach 12m or so if it's happy.
- Trachycarpus wagnerianus. Another fan-shaped palm, this is a cultivated version of fan palm which has good, stiff leaves which tend to be able to cope with the wind. Also hardy down to around -12 degrees C.
- Phoenix canariensis: the Canary Island date palm has big, feathery fronds and can be grown outdoors in the UK. However, it's only hardy to around -8 degrees C so will probably need some winter protection unless it occupies a really sheltered spot. It can eventually grow to about 15m tall, given ideal conditions. Phoenix canariensis is a graceful palm with arching fronds.