What Is a Red Fern Plant?

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The red fern of Wilson Rawls' popular children's novel "Where the Red Fern Grows" doesn't exist. It's based on an Indian myth in which an angel plants a red fern between the bodies of two American Indian children who had frozen to death in a blizzard, making it a sacred location.

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Though the red fern is only a legend, some fern plants do have red stems, red veins, or leaves that are nearly red at some point. While they don't have mythical power, ferns with a touch of red amid the green can add a touch of color to a shady garden, an especially attractive addition for imaginative gardeners familiar with Rawls' creation. Several ferns might be regarded as red ferns.

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While there isn't a specific red fern plant like you've read about in Wilson Rawls' book, there are real fern plants that have red components. Examples include the Japanese painted fern, autumn fern, mahogany fern, lady fern, and eared lady fern.

Japanese Painted Fern Plant

The widely grown Japanese painted fern (​Athyrium niponicum​ 'Pictum') is a showy fern with metallic silver-gray fronds touched with blue and red. It likes moist soil and part to full shade, showing its colors most vividly in cooler climates. You'll need to add 2 to 3 inches of compost in the spring. It will grow in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 8, growing dormant in winter. It is a favorite of the Pacific Northwest.

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Autumn Fern Plant

The fronds of the autumn fern (​Dyopteris erythrosora,USDA zones 5 through 8) unfold in a copper-red color turning green as they mature. Autumn fern likes deep, rich, moist, organic soil. It doesn't like sun, heat, drought, compacted soil, pollution, or urban growing conditions in general. It needs continuous moisture and at least partial shade to survive. The shade of east or north-facing walls is ideal.

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Mahogany Fern Plant

A tropical fern, mahogany fern (​Didymochlaena truncatula,​ USDA zones 9 through 10) grows 2 to 3 feet high and 3 feet wide with new foliage that is a rich mahogany red turning to glossy green as it matures. The changes in frond color are similar to the autumn fern, but it grows more upright. It likes evenly moist soil and shade.

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Lady Fern Plant

Lady fern (​Athyrium filix-femina​, USDA zones 3 through 9) grows 2 to 3 feet tall on greenish-yellow to red stems bearing light green fronds. They're a good choice for a garden of native plants, useful for filling space between trees and shrubs. They grow naturally in wet meadows, swamps, lake shores, marshes, and forests. They thrive in the shade in moist, wet soil rich in humus.

Eared Lady Fern Plant

The eared lady fern (​Athyrium otophorum,​ USDA zones 5 through 9) grows from 1 to 2 feet tall, spreading equally wide, and grows in rich, moist soil. The dark mahogany red stems bear green fronds. Although it's deciduous, its fronds remain green until early winter.

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