Buying a live Christmas tree every year is fine—as long as you have space in your yard for dozens of mature pine and fir trees. For those who live on less than 20 acres, here’s another idea—buy a Christmas fern. This dandy demure perennial, which is native to the eastern United States, stays green all year long, even under snow. It used to be gathered as Christmas greenery back in the day (hence the name). The leathery green fronds stay tidy in size and thrive in shade. You might have trouble hanging ornaments on it, but just think how beautiful it’ll look in your garden next year.
Common name: Christmas fern, dagger fern
Botanical name: Polystichum acrostichoides
Plant type: Fern
Zones: 3 to 9
Height: 1 to 2 feet
• Sun: Part to full shade
• Soil: Humus-rich
• Moisture: Dry to medium
• Mulch: Mulch to preserve moisture in the soil.
• Pruning: None needed.
• Fertilizer: None needed.
• By division
• Christmas fern looks great in masses or drifts.
• Christmas fern grows in dry and moist spots in the shade. It does need good drainage to avoid crown rot.
• Many ferns are colonizers. Christmas fern is rhizomatous, but though its clumps get larger, it won’t spread aggressively.
• Use Christmas fern in woodland gardens or shade gardens, or on the north side of walls or fences. You can also use it to control erosion—at the end of the growing season, the fronds fall to the ground, trapping other leaves and soil in place.
All in the family
• There are more than 200 species of Polystichum. These ferns are found worldwide, from the tropics to the mountains.
• Relatives of Christmas fern that are also found in gardens include Western swordfern (P. munitum); Japanese tassel fern, also called holly fern (P. polyblepharum); and hedge fern, also called soft shield fern (P. setiferum).
Where to buy
• Deer-Resistant Landscape Nursery, Clare, MI, 800-595-3650, www.deerxlandscape.com
• Nearly Native Nursery, Fayetteville, GA, 770-460-6284, www.nearlynativenursery.com
• Plant Delights Nursery Inc., Raleigh, NC, 919-772-4794, www.plantdelights.com
(Text by Elizabeth Noll, photo of Polystichum acrostichoides courtesy of the Kemper Center for Home Gardening at the Missouri Botanical Garden)