Hayscented fern–a Gardening Oops?

How can the beautiful hayscented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula), a Connecticut native, become a gardening oops? Easily. Ignore it and it will spread.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I love ferns, particularly native ferns, and frequently use them in the perennial beds around our home … they help tie the planned beds to the surrounding woodlands that are filled with hayscented and other native ferns. The dainty fern frond structure is a lovely foil to long sword-like foliage of Siberian iris and the light-green frond color is stunning next to the blue-violet iris flowers.

Still, hayscented ferns can become too much of a good thing. When left untended, hayscented ferns can become a gardening oops – aka GOOPs.

On the first of each month I share a GOOPs tale, an account of a gardening blunder or problem I’ve witnessed in other gardens or experienced in my own decades of gardening in Connecticut. Gardeners who experiment with plant combinations and like to see how far they can stretch a plant’s hardiness or possible growth conditions will have a few GOOPS. Sharing these GOOPs may help prevent others from making the same blunder.

Hayscented fern fronds grow 12 to 18 inches long in a triangular shape and are  light green with a bit more of a yellow tinge than many other woodland ferns. The fronds grow from a structure of underground creeping rhizomes. When massed into dense colonies, hayscented ferns create a lacy, delicate-looking carpet, a growth pattern that can be an advantage. Hayscented ferns are stunning when encouraged to grow along roadside edges and bordering classic New England stone walls.

Masses of hayscented fern act as a lovely transition between grassy areas and woodland edges.

hayscented ferns at a woodland edge

They help block the summertime view of our air conditioning units (left photo) and, along with Siberian iris, block sight of our well pipe (right photo).


I love how they fill space between native Connecticut mountain laurel growing next to a ledge.


But the same mat-forming growth pattern that allow hayscented ferns to form such lovely carpets of green also allows the rhizomes to crowd out established perennials.

If not thinned, hayscented ferns will crowd out this Rose Campion (Lychnis) and this Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla).


Even this larger ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) is being overrun by hayscented fern.


A quick way to neaten infringements of hayscented ferns is to break the fronds from the rhizomes at soil level. New fronds will shoot up, but they are easily broken off during subsequent weeding and neatening sessions.

Digging out the rhizomes can be a chore since they form very dense mats. A garden fork works best to pry intact rhizomes from the soil but any pieces left behind will re-grow. I have often transplanted hayscented ferns from perennial beds to more desirable woodland edge areas. Even with neglect, they reestablish well.

Living in an area heavily browsed by deer, I relish nearly any plant, such as hayscented fern, that deer leave alone. But, left untended in a perennial bed, hayscented fern can become a thug and, right now in my gardens it’s a thug that needs some serious management.

Have you had a GOOPs experience with hayscented ferns or faced any other garden blunder? Share your tale in a comment below or, if you want to join the GOOPs party you can share your GOOPs on your own blog and leave a teaser below.

If you haven’t made a few gardening miss-steps, you are not gardening hard enough!

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7 comments for “Hayscented fern–a Gardening Oops?

  1. June 1, 2013 at 11:32 am

    That is a beautiful fern, and exactly right for the transition areas near woods. But “ignore it and it will spread” is a scary phrase for any gardener. It sounds like you figured out the management technique (although it is labor intensive) so you don’t have to eliminate this beauty completely and can use it, judiciously, in those beautiful half-wild spots where it really shines.

    My Oops is on my blog today, and it is actually an oops that I avoided!

    • June 2, 2013 at 6:39 am

      Laurrie, hayscented fern is absolutely beautiful and I would not want to garden in my setting without it. It does require management, but it is well worth it.

  2. June 3, 2013 at 10:17 am

    Do you know of a good online fern id site? Or could you tell me the distinguishing characteristics of hay-scented ferns? I certainly have ferns growing wild on my land, and one kind might be hay-scented fern, but I don’t know how to be (reasonably) sure.

    • June 3, 2013 at 11:28 am

      Kathy, I use the Connecticut Botanical Society website to help ID many of the ‘wild’ plants I see in and around my property. There I learned that hayscented ferns have triangular-shaped fronds, as opposed to the similar New York fern with frond leaves of a smaller length near the base of the stem. I likely have New York fern around here as well but it’s the hayscented fern that I spend more time managing.
      The Connecticut Botanical Society links page lists other fern and native plant websites. I’ll bet you find some useful information there.

  3. June 3, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    Thanks. I’ve been to the CBS website before, but didn’t realize it covered ferns.

  4. June 12, 2013 at 9:08 pm

    I agree that these look wonderful with the Siberian irises — but a plant that can crowd out lady’s mantle has to be pretty aggressive! I think I was saved from a similar goops when I was planning to include May apple in my serenity garden at the edge of the woods. Two readers left comments cautioning me that this would form dense colonies and take over the entire flower bed. I was grateful for the heads-up. I’m still planning to plant May apple at some point, but it will be in woodland edge along the driveway.

    • June 13, 2013 at 8:46 am

      Jean, hay fern can and does spread in my gardens, likely because it thrives in the native soil. But it is so beautiful that I tolerate it’s bullishness. It is relatively easy to keep under control, as long as the garden caretaker has the time to do so.

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