A hardy dwarf fern for garden railroaders
Common name: Lip fern, Silver cloak fern
Latin name: Cheilanthes argentea
Plant type: Perennial
USDA Hardiness Zones: 5-9
Cultural needs: Sun to part shade; well drained, slightly acidic, poor soil
Plant size: 6″ high and wide
The perfect dwarf fern for railway gardens elevated on rocks is the lip fern. Able to withstand some drying out, resistant to deer, and tolerant of poor soil, silver lip fern is tough. The fronds feel like cardboard. The underside of each frond is cloaked in a chalky white coating, thus the “silver” name. When the tips dry out or when a frond inevitably dies, the fronds seem to go belly up to expose the starry-white sides that resemble flowers—not bad for adding interest. The two little clumps in the photo grow in a 2″ crevice between flagstones. In summer, this area gets hot midday but the thick fronds are fine. Note the larger fern on the right, which only grows a foot high, to compare how tiny these little ferns stay. Unlike most ferns with a subdued, green color, Cheilanthes sp. are a deep, dark green except when the fiddleheads unfurl in a light yellow-green to match the gold moss stonecrop (Sedum acre ‘De Oro’). Due to many tall trees, the pictured plants in the author’s Aggie get plenty of shade, but ferns are desirable here to show the difference between the living and the fossilized ferns.