Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Wildflower Wednesday: Polystichum acrostichoides

The flowers are gone from the garden, except for a few of the last to bloom ex-asters and two tiny fleabanes that are protected by fallen leaves. There is still color in the trees and shrubs and stalwart blooms on the native witch-hazel, but, we're quickly moving toward the season of gray and brown in my part of the gardening world.

The graceful arching fronds of evergreen Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) are especially appreciated this time of year.  It's wonderful to have a fern presence in the midst of a hot and humid Nashville summer, but, this fern shines in winter when the dark, leathery fronds pop against the decaying leaves or poke up through a light snow. 

The Christmas Fern is an accommodating fern for those looking for an easy care native in their woodland garden. It will grow in a variety of situations: shady, rich, poor, rocky, etc. Although, all information about this fern recommends we plant it in moist soil, it tolerates my dry, shady soil and can go for weeks without watering. It does occasionally suffer a dried frond but, once established, it seems immune to dryer soils.
Heuchera and Christmas fern both need good winter drainage

The fountain-like clump of leathery, lance-shaped evergreen fronds is a good companion plant for spring ephemerals and woodland wildflowers. It looks good with Phacelia bipinnatifida, Spigelia marilandica, Scutellaria incana, Heucheras and woodland phlox. Young fiddleheads (or crosiers) are silvery and scaled, and emerge in the spring from the loose old foliage. Btw, don't eat the fiddleheads! They aren't edible.
The older foliage collapses into the leaf litter
 The older foliage collapses into the leaf litter as the year progresses toward winter. This accumulated detritus of decaying fronds helps to stabilize the soil and prevent or lessen erosion. The built up mass is also a protective habitat for ground feeding and ground nesting birds.

Ferns are ancient plants (350 million years on this planet) and scientific research almost always focuses on tropical ferns, but, that doesn't mean our Christmas fern has no ecological value. It's not a host plant for any insects and mammals don't browse it, but, as stated above the decaying plant provides habitat for birds, while also stabilizing the soil.

But, we gardeners know that their value is beyond measure. We want plants that are easy to care for, lovely to look at, require very little fuss, can survive our hot humid summers and our long cold winters and are not eaten by pests, like deer and rodents.  I think you'll find that Christmas fern more than meets those qualifications.

Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. Vol. 1: 16. Provided by Kentucky Native Plant Society.

Plant Particulars

Polystichum acrostichoides
Common name: Christmas fern
Family: Wood Fern Family (Dryopteridaceae)

Native range: Christmas fern is found in the north-eastern and north-central portions of North America from New Brunswick south to North Carolina. West to Minnesota and south to Florida and eastern Texas

Habitat: Garden and woodland conditions: The preference is light shade, mesic to slightly dry conditions, and soil that is loamy or rocky with abundant leaf litter. Found along stream beds and on rocky slopes.

Hardiness: USDA Zones 3-9.

Height 1 ft. to 3 ft. Spread 1 ft. to 3 ft. Moderate grower.

Light: Part Shade to Full Shade

Moisture: Moist to dry. Poor drainage in winter can lead to crown rot.

Ecological Significance: The accumulated detritus of decaying fronds helps to stabilize the soil and prevent or lessen erosion. The built up mass is a protective habitat for ground feeding and ground nesting birds.

Comments: This is a great accent plant or groundcover in a woodland garden. Good winter interest in an other wise brown winter garden. Erosion control on slopes. Is a valuable deer resistant plant for woodlands that deer browse. Useful in perennial, rock, water wise gardens and wildlife gardens. The fiddleheads are not edible.

spores on upper leaflets

People are of two minds regarding the  origin of our Wildflower Wednesday star's common name.  Some state emphatically that Christmas fern is so named because the leathery fronds are green throughout the winter and have been used as holiday decorations. Others say just as emphatically that the pinnae/leaflets, especially the larger ones, are shaped like a Christmas stocking or like Santa’s sleigh or boot.

I'll let you decide which you prefer.


Welcome to the November Wildflower Wednesday celebration. Today's star is a perfect plant to usher in winter with its evergreen foliage that's been used for winter decorations for generations.

Wildflower Wednesday is about sharing wildflowers from your part of the world. Don't worry if you have nothing in bloom, you can still showcase one of your favorites. It doesn't matter if we sometimes show the same plants; how they grow and thrive in your garden is what matters most. I hope you join the celebration...It's always the fourth Wednesday of the month!

Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


  1. I had this beautiful fern in my garden for the longest time then one spring it didn't reappear. I don't know what happened to it. I will have to reintroduce it into my garden. Happy Wildflower Wednesday.

  2. Looks like a relative of our PNW native sword fern Polystichum munitum, which is a similarly versatile workhorse in my garden. Happy Wildflower Wednesday, and Happy Thanksgiving!

  3. How lovely. I’m very fond of ferns. I love the new growth in the spring. There are lots of wildflower photos on my blog. I’m not quite sure how to do the linky thing. All the best. Karen bramblegarden.com

  4. I'll be honest--I don't know the names of most ferns. But this one is lovely, and to think it stays green for so long means I need to find this one for my garden!

  5. This is a nice fern! There's some growing wild in the woods on our farm.

  6. You’re right, it looks lovely poking up through the leaves!

  7. Love ferns but I have only managed two in my garden. Both indigenous. Maidenhair and the seven weeks fern (so called because it lasts that long in a florist's vase)


"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson