Japanese Holly FernCyrtomium falcatum
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Outdoor Growing zone
Partial Sun, Shade
The Japanese Holly Fern is a tough, reliable fern with a bold look. The glossy leaves are leathery and dark green, and the large leaflets are attractively curved. It forms a 2 to 3-foot clump that really gives a lift to shady corners of your garden, growing well across a wide range of light levels. Plant it on rocky slopes, in the shade of boulders, on terracing or by water. It fits well into minimalist designs, Japanese-influenced gardens and woodland gardens. It is also one of the few ferns to grow well in coastal areas. It makes a good houseplant for low-light or cool rooms, and porches.
Grow the Japanese Holly Fern in places with partial sun, dappled shade and dark full shade as well – it can handle hard conditions well. It grows best in moist, richer soils, but survives better than most ferns in drier conditions. It will grow in salt-spray and also with salty irrigation. Pests, diseases, rabbits and deer are all no problem to it. Trim away damaged leaves, especially in cooler zones, in early spring – new growth will quickly replace them.
Most ferns are, well, ferny, with a soft, fine look that contrasts well with bolder plants, but certainly couldn’t be called bold at all. Not all ferns, though, and perhaps the boldest and most striking exception is the Japanese Holly Fern. No wonder it is named after holly, because the large leaflets do look a little like the leaves of a holly tree – leathery, glossy and dark green. This evergreen fern is only hardy in warmer zones, but for a similar plant that is hardy in colder zones, see Fortune’s Holly Fern, a similar looking plant, but cold-hardy. It looks great growing alongside softer ferns, or with fine-foliage plants, and gives a bold look to any planting. Growing 2 or 3 feet tall and wide, the rich look of this plant makes it a great choice. It is also virtually unique among ferns in growing in areas with salt-spray, and with brackish water, as well as being more resistant to dryness than most. It also makes a great houseplant for low-light and cooler rooms, so even in colder areas you can still enjoy the beauty of this plant.
The Japanese Holly Fern is an evergreen fern (deciduous in colder zones) that sends out many fronds that are 12 to 30 inches long, depending on the growing conditions. Fronds are shorter in drier soil. Each frond has a central stem and could almost be mistaken for a branch of holly. Up to 10 pairs of individual leaflets line the sides of the stem from top to bottom, and they are leathery and glossy dark-green. Each leaflet is somewhat angular, with wavy or slightly toothed edges, ending in a bold curve towards the frond-tip, which resembles a sickle or scythe. If you look closely you will see that the surface of the leaf is covered in a fine net of veins, and this fern is sometimes called the net-veined holly fern. When the leaves are older you will see, on the underside, a dense covering of round circles, the spore-carrying sori, as they are called. Ferns don’t have flowers, and they instead release dust-like spores that grow into new plants. The fronds stay fresh and green all through winter in warmer zones and when grown indoors
The bold, glossy look of this fern works well around rocks, and it makes a great specimen on the north side of a boulder or in retaining walls. Plant it in shady rock gardens, or in a Japanese-influenced courtyard garden (it’s an authentic Japanese plant, after all). Group it with other shade-loving plants, be they other ferns, Hosta, Astilbe or groundcovers. It looks as cool in a woodland garden as it does in a highly-designed one, and it’s going to be a great addition to every garden. With tolerance of salt-spray and salty irrigation water it is a great choice for a coastal home or cottage. The Japanese Holly Fern also makes an excellent houseplant in a low-light, cool room, or a shady porch.
The Japanese Holly Fern is hardy from zone 6 to zone 10. In zones 6 and 7 it may be deciduous, with the leaves dying completely or being badly damaged during the winter. If you simply cut back the foliage in early spring it will quickly re-sprout and look great again in a matter of weeks. In those zones a winter mulch with dead leaves or straw will give some extra protection.
Capable of taking some direct sun in cooler areas, the Japanese Holly Fern thrives in afternoon shade, partial shade beneath trees, and even in full, dense shade. Only the very darkest corners under low-hanging evergreens will be too dark. It grows best in rich, well-drained soils that are usually moist, but it will tolerate drier soils too, and pockets of soil in rocky areas, much better than most other ferns will. It also grows in areas with salt-spray and can even be watered with brackish, slightly-salty water – something rare among ferns.
Deer and rabbits leave the Japanese Holly Fern alone, and pests or diseases are never issues for it. You don’t even need to trim away the dead leaves, but if you like a neater garden you might want to. Do this in spring, just as you see new fronds beginning to sprout. This plant certainly qualifies as ‘low maintenance’.
The Japanese Holly Fern, Cyrtomium falcatum, grows as a wild plant through southern China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan and the Korean Peninsula. It can be found growing naturally in crevices on cliffs above the ocean, along streams, and on rocky slopes. The Latin word ‘falcatus’ means ‘sickle’, a reference to the shape of the leaves. It was described as early as 1781 by ‘Carl the Younger’ the son of the famous botanist Carl Linnaeus, who is remembered for creating our naming system for plants. The specimens he studied were probably sent to him by the Swedish doctor and naturalist, Carl Thunberg, an early explorer of Japan.
The Japanese Holly Fern has certainly been a popular fern in gardens and greenhouses for a very long time, but that doesn’t diminish its value for a moment. It was granted the Award of Garden Merit in 1993 by England’s top gardening society, the Royal Horticultural Society, and that means you can rely on great results when you grow it in your own garden. Order now, though, as its popularity means it sells out fast, and it’s always in short supply.