The mythical red fern plant was made popular in 1961 with Wilson Rawls’s children’s book, Where the Red Fern Grows. According to Native American legend, only angels can plant red ferns, and the area surrounding the red ferns becomes sacred. There does exists a lady in red fern plant, which probably was the fern that was referenced in the book.
The fern, formally called Athyrium filix-femina, features deep red or burgundy stems that are surrounded by vibrant green fronds, which grow upright to about two to three feet and feature lace-like designs. The fern fronds grow in clumps and are dense. Lady in red ferns commonly are planted to provide seasonal ground cover and to attract ground-hovering birds, such as robins. The ferns easily are grown and thrive in a wide range of sunlight and soil conditions.
Lady in red ferns can grow in full sunlight with moist soil and in shady areas. This fern can tolerate somewhat dry soil, but does well with moist soil that drains well. Windy areas will tear fronds, but you can cut tattered fronds at the base, and new fronds will grow fairly quickly.
For a lady in red fern to achieve optimum color, the soil must be kept moist but not wet or saturated. The soil must have adequate drainage. It’s not necessary to fertilize the fern, but its colors are most vibrant when nitrogen-free fertilizer is used. For bright green fronds, the fern must go through winter dormancy. Vibrant red stem colors appear after the second dormancy when the fern reaches maturity.
Eventually, the center of the lady in red fern clump will die. When this happens, dig up the plant and divide the green outer portions into new clumps. Usually, the best time to divide the fern is during spring.