The Christmas Fern

Barb Mrgich
Adams County Master Gardener

Well, here it is December, and everyone's thoughts have turned to Christmas. What could be more appropriate for a garden column than a discussion of the Christmas Fern? Did you know it is native to eastern North America?

Did you know, unlike most ferns that die back to the ground in winter, the Christmas Fern stays green? That's how it got its nickname, "The Christmas Fern". Not many plants are green at Christmas! The official botanical name of the Christmas Fern is Polystichum acrostichoides.

If you enjoy putting together arrangements from your garden during the holidays, the Christmas Fern makes a nice addition with its evergreen foliage.

Like most ferns, the Christmas Fern prefers to grow in shady conditions, but it will even tolerate full shade which is unusual for any plant. The Christmas Fern will also tolerate dryer soils than most other ferns, It prefers cool, moist well drained soil, however, the rhizomes will rot quickly if the ground stays too wet.

The Christmas Fern grows from rhizomes, but surprisingly does not spread around and naturalize as other ferns tend to do. The clump simply gets slowly larger with each passing year. Good news for someone like me who admires the beauty of ferns, and would like to have some greenery in the front of my house in the winter, but am not anxious to have to disentangle it from my other plants come summer.

The Christmas Fern is said to be trouble free as far as disease and pests are concerned. It grows to be about two feet by two feet, and is hardy in zones 3 - 9. That, of course, includes us in zone 6.

If you happen to have a shaded slope that is rocky and not too dry, and you are worried about erosion, the Christmas Fern is the plant for you! It does appreciate organics in its soil, though.

Christmas ferns will also do well in dry shade. They mix nicely with things like Bleeding Heart, Lenten Rose, Epimedium, and bulbs. Although they stay green year round, in the spring when the fiddleheads appear, it's a good idea to trim off the old fronds.

A friend of mine who likes to proofread my articles would stop me here and say, "What in the world is a rhizome, a fiddlehead, and a frond?" Well a rhizome is a fleshy rootstock, actually a stem, that likes to grow horizontally close to the surface of the soil. Rhizomes are known for spreading out and filling in an area rapidly. Calla and Canna Lilies grow from rhizomes, in addition to things like Bamboo, Ginger, and Bearded Iris. This is why it is surprising that a Christmas Fern is a rhizome, but doesn't spread aggressively to cover a large area.

Some other gardening terms that go along with any discussion of ferns are fronds, pinnae, Fiddle heads, and Croisers. The accompanying picture demonstrates each term.

The frond is the large leaf of the fern. As it starts to grow from the base of the plant, it is curled in such a way to resemble an end of a violin, or fiddlehead. A young fiddlehead is called a Crosier, and is sometimes eaten as a vegetable. The pinnae are the individual small leaflets that attach to the axis (center stem) of the frond. On the Christmas Fern, if you look very closely, each one seems to have a little foot where it attaches to the axis.

You guessed it, that's the foot of the Christmas Stocking!

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