Friday, December 17, 2010

LOOK FOR: Christmas Fern

There are 12,000 species of ferns in the world, but I can only identify about five of them without looking them up. Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is one of the easiest.

Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostiichoides)
Photo credit: Kent McFarland
At this time of year, one of the most notable things about Christmas fern is that it is one of just a few ferns that grow in our area that is evergreen. In fact, people used to harvest the leaves for use in wreaths and other Christmas decorations -- thus the common name.

But you can easily identify Christmas fern at other times of year, too. Look at the shape of the leaflets: they're bent into a J shape near where the leaflet joins the stem. Think of them as little Christmas stockings, and you will always recognize the Christmas fern!

In the wild: Christmas fern is common in our local woods, especially along streams and on hillsides. Its green should stand out at this time of year.

In your yard: These are a great option to get a little year-round green in a shady spot that doesn't get too dry. Christmas ferns are widely available at local nurseries, but they aren't cheap -- ferns are hard to propagate. They can be divided if you've got a friend with a healthy clump: do it in the spring when they're sending up new shoots, and make sure you get several fiddleheads per division.

Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)
Photo credit: Kent McFarland