This native evergreen thrives in winter

Not much is green in the forests during the wintertime, save the usual suspects: pines, hollies and evergreen shrubs such as rhododendron and laurel. Look down to the forest floor in our local woods, however, and you're likely to find a native evergreen, the Christmas fern.

Named for its habit of retaining dark green foliage throughout the winter, the Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) thrives on limestone soils and has the added benefit of being unpalatable to deer. During the growing season, stiff, 2- to 3-foot-long fronds radiate from the plant's base. Fronds are thicker in the middle than at the base, and the leaflets have a tough, leathery texture. In the winter, the fronds lay nearly flat on the ground, and only die back and turn brown once new growth commences in spring.

Christmas fern

Photo by Michelle Donahue

In its natural habitat, which ranges from North Carolina to Nova Scotia, Christmas fern plays an important role in soil stabilization. The thick rhizomous crown of the fern, as well as the old fronds which accumulate each year around the plant's base, help retain woodland soils in place. Ferns also provide nesting material for hummingbirds, shelter for ground-nesting birds including wild turkey and ruffed grouse, and act as a food source and shelter for numerous other ground-dwelling forest species.

The plant prefers moist growing conditions, though it will not tolerate consistently waterlogged areas. Conversely, in a residential setting, Christmas ferns are an excellent choice for difficult growing sites, as they withstand dry, shady conditions fairly well and even sunny areas when provided with adequate moisture. They can be used as an alternative for common ground covers, including English ivy, pachysandra or periwinkle (Vinca minor). And unlike hosta, the princess of the shade garden, deer only consume Christmas fern as a last resort.

Article by Michelle Donahue, FCFCDB member

Nature Notes for 1/22/2012