What is it? Few plants do well in full shade, but almost every garden has some that do: beside a shed, in a gloomy side return, on a north-facing balcony. The alpine wood fern (Dryopteris wallichiana) is one of those hardy types. Every spring, a fresh set of dark-ribbed fronds (“hairy as a monkey’s arm”, says writer Anna Pavord) unfurls, creating an explosion of yellow-green for summer and beyond. Now is a great time to order specimens to plant this autumn.
Plant it with? At up to 90cm tall, it has an imposing presence when planted en masse. Snowdrops will provide a pretty distraction while the fronds have downtime in winter: cut away the old ones without damaging the cluster of tightly wound stems that will form the next generation. If you insist on more partners, they look good with lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) and epimediums.
And where? Partial or full shade. It doesn’t need a bog: moist soil is fine, but it will rub along pretty well in dry shade once established, too. Add leaf mould when planting.
Any drawbacks? No flowers. But is that really a drawback?
What else can it do? It will be fine in a pot on that north-facing balcony.