This common native fern grows in a graceful, fountain-like form and retains its refreshing, dark green color throughout winter. Silvery, hairy fiddleheads (crosiers) emerge in spring to form a clump of two-foot, arching fronds with leaflets (pinnae) that resemble Christmas stockings or the silhouette of Santa in his sled. The common name is derived from this feature and also from the evergreen fronds that were sometimes used in Christmas decorations. Ferns developed over 300 million years ago in wet and swampy conditions, and they still thrive in the moist, rich soils of banks and ravines. Christmas fern also flourishes in medium to dry soils that are sandy or rocky, and it tolerates dry, infertile soils, which makes it suitable for erosion control on slopes. Heavier clay soils need to be amended to avoid root rot, which is indicated by browning frond tips. This fern can tolerate some sun, but yellowing leaves is an indication that it’s getting too much sun or not enough water. Filtered light is ideal for lush growth, but Christmas fern also flourishes in full shade, and even does well in hanging baskets or container plantings. Each plant increases in size but doesn’t usually spread to form a colony.
Christmas fern's genus name comes from the Greek words polys, meaning “many,” and stichos, meaning “in a row,” referring to its rows of spore cases, or sori. Unlike flowering plants, ferns reproduce via spores instead of seeds. The spores are protected within the sori structures that grow on the undersides of the pinnae. This felt-like mass of sori is described by the species name, which comes from the word "acrostichoid."
The location and appearance of the sori are an aid in identifying species of ferns. Christmas fern bears two types of leaves (fronds): fertile and sterile. A fertile leaf, which is taller and more erect, produces spores on the upper third of its length. The pinnae curl up and become brown on their undersides as the spores develop. Fertile leaves usually wither away by winter. Sterile leaves, which remain evergreen, lie flat on the ground in late fall and winter. They provide winter cover near the ground for songbirds, who also use parts of the plant for nesting materials.
Christmas fern adds texture and appeal to gardens, borders, and woodlands, and it is useful to wildlife. It’s a good choice for areas that tend to be problematic, including small spaces, shady areas along walls, and proximity to septic tanks. It tolerates dry, infertile soils and provides erosion control when massed on slopes and banks. As an added boon, it’s highly resistant to damage by deer, although they browse it on occasion. Space the plants about 18” apart and add mulch to boost nutrients and retain moisture. Heavy clay soils should be amended to prevent root rot. Spring is the best time for root division.
Native habitats include forest understories, rocky slopes, banks of streams, and thickets. Use as an accent plant or in groupings in deciduous woodlands, borders, cottage or fairy gardens, and shady areas of the landscape.
Grows 1-2’ tall and wide.
Requires part or full shade.
Adapts to a wide range of conditions, from very dry to moist.
Soft, leathery leaves are 12-31” long with 20-35 pairs of pinnae that are 1-1/2” long. Each pinna has a triangular lobe at its base and serrated margins. Curled fiddleheads of new leaves emerge in the spring.
The green stipe and rachis are scaly and chaffy. There is no bark because the fronds grow directly from the ground in a clump.
Host plant for 4 species of Lepidoptera larvae, including Florida fern caterpillar, serpentine webworm (both pictured here), brown angle shades, and specialist reticulated decantha moth. The fiddleheads are sometimes eaten by gamebirds and wild turkeys. Rabbits and deer tend to leave it alone.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Americans used the fern to treat chills, fever, pneumonia, and stomach or bowel complaints. A poultice of the root was used to treat rheumatism.
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