COLUMBUS, Ga. -- If you are the fortunate owner of a woodland garden looking to add a fern or two, put the arborvitae fern high on your list of must-have plants. This slowly spreading plant reaches 12 to 18 inches tall and gives the appearance of being a lacy ground-hugging conifer.
Botanically speaking it is Selaginella braunii, and is a real anomaly when it comes to common names -- because it's not a fern.
It does share a fern trait: It doesn't flower, but produces spore-bearing cones. Its other common name is spikemoss and -- though it would look to be a natural fit in a mossy garden -- it is not a moss either.
One aspect makes it a taxonomic dream plant: Known as a lycopod, it is among Earth's oldest living plants. The arborvitae fern is a lycopod from China, and is just one of several hundred of these species, including some native to the United States.
If you add this plant to your garden, you'll love its wonderful texture. The arborvitae fern is cold hardy in zones 6 to 9 and is classified as evergreen to semi-evergreen and deciduous, depending on the zone. It will take awhile to form a clump but is well worth the patience required.
When you find yours, select a site that is shaded to filtered light. The soil should be fertile, organic-rich and well-drained. This will provide for the fastest spread. Space your plants informally on 2-foot centers to design your clump or drift. Maintain a regular water regimen the first year as they are getting established and keep the bed area well mulched to prevent competition from weeds.
Woodland gardens are most effective when designed with winding paths or walkways. Use the arborvitae fern in drifts or clumps along these trails with companions like the Solomon's seal or toad lily. Try it as an understory companion to hydrangeas of all species. It also fits perfectly with hostas and can be partnered with impatiens. No fern garden, however, should be considered complete without a patch or two of the arborvitae fern.
The Columbus (Ga.) Botanical Garden has them next to a short brick column or pedestal featuring a large bonsai juniper. In another area they are in partnership with rocks, and now clumps are being divided and transplanted to a new moss and lichen garden. Another strong attribute: They are not eaten by deer.
Now would be a good time to check with your local garden center to see if they can get them for you for spring planting. If they can't, you have plenty of time to purchase from one of several great mail-order nurseries that have not only this species but a few others as well.